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Delays Continue In Talks For New Coronavirus Aid Package

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

There was hope Congress would reach a deal last night for more pandemic aid, but one should exercise caution when putting hope and Congress in the same sentence. A last-minute sticking point emerged, leaving even lawmakers frustrated.

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JOSH HAWLEY: It's beginning to reach the point of absurdity. I mean, it's time for leadership to put on the table what they've got. It's time for them to brief members about what they've got.

SIMON: That's Republican Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri.

NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis has been following it all inch by inch. Thanks so much for being with us.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: I think we've had this conversation before.

DAVIS: (Laughter) I think we have.

SIMON: This has been stalled for seven months. Lawmakers said they almost had a deal on COVID relief earlier this week. Now they don't. What's the holdup?

DAVIS: Well, Republican Senator Pat Toomey - he's from Pennsylvania - he has come out and said he wants to add a provision to the bill. Essentially, what it would do is it would eliminate a couple of emergency lending programs that the Federal Reserve was granted by Congress earlier this year.

Democrats are pushing back hard. They see this as an attempt by Republicans to try to tie the hands of the incoming Biden administration in terms of what they're able to do to prop up the economy. Here's what House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer - he is, of course, a Democrat - told reporters yesterday about the Toomey provision.

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STENY HOYER: It is totally political and, in my opinion, a putrid political effort to diminish President Biden's authority. That's what I think.

DAVIS: So you can hear anger in his voice there. In terms of the overall scope of the bill, this is a pretty small provision. But the fact that the Biden team has come out and saying they do not want it in the bill is going to make it really hard for Democrats to relent and give in here. And if it's not included, it creates a problem for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell because it further divides Senate Republicans.

SIMON: I gather there has been some progress, and NPR has learned the outlines of what's likely to be in the package if and when it passes. What do the senators agree on?

DAVIS: Yeah. I mean, all week, leaders have been saying they're at the 1-yard line, the 5-yard line. They really are close on the overall bill.

We know it's going to cost about 900 billion. It's a lot more than Republicans wanted and a lot less than Democrats did. I think it's important to remind people that this 900 billion is on top of the $2.5 trillion that Congress has already spent this year to confront this pandemic. But it has a lot of things in it that people really need right now. It would extend federal unemployment benefits through the early spring. It's likely to include another round of those stimulus checks. We don't know exactly how much, but lawmakers are talking around in the $600 range. It's going to have more money for small businesses, more money to get that vaccine out there, more money for things like food stamps. There's a lot of hungry people in this country right now.

It's not going to include things that Democrats wanted, including aid to state and local governments. They pushed hard for that, but Republicans really don't like it. And Republicans had to back down from trying to include liability provisions to protect businesses and schools from lawsuits, something Democrats didn't want in there.

And remember, this is all going to go on a massive annual spending bill - just regular old government spending. So, you know, lawmakers are looking at an up-or-down vote on a roughly $2.5 trillion bill just in the coming days.

SIMON: Susan, where are you going to have your eyes fixed and your ears the next coming - next few days?

DAVIS: You know, we're in that furious close of negotiations. It's possible they could wrap this up by the end of the weekend. Obviously, we're coming up against the Christmas holiday, and lawmakers want to go home. And as you well know, Scott, deals tend to come together when lawmakers want to get out of town. I think enough lawmakers have said it is absolutely unfeasible to go home and spend Christmas with their own families when literally millions of Americans are in desperate need right now. So I think the next two to three days are pretty critical.

But overall, I think there is an optimism that they can get there and get this done. And remember, incoming President Biden has said this is just another bite of the apple. His team is already putting together a request for another stimulus package they will ask for next year.

SIMON: NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis, thanks so much.

DAVIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.