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Top US Congressional Leaders Meet on COVID-19; McConnell Vows Agreement

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Top U.S. congressional leaders were meeting on Tuesday as they sought to finalize a massive government funding bill and end a standoff on coronavirus relief, with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin expected to join by telephone.

House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, invited Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, as well as Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer and House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy to the meeting on Capitol Hill. All were present for the 4 p.m. meeting, a Democratic aide said.

About 90 minutes before the gathering, McConnell told reporters that lawmakers would not leave town this year until they have agreed on a fresh package of coronavirus relief, which he said he hoped could be attached to the government funding measure.

“We’re going to stay here until we get a COVID package … no matter how long it takes,” he said. He reiterated his view that the best way to get a deal was to drop the most contentious items – liability protections for business, preferred by Republicans, and aid to state and local governments, sought by Democrats.

Pelosi spoke to Mnuchin for over an hour earlier on Tuesday and they “discussed the latest” on the government funding talks and coronavirus aid, a Pelosi spokesman said.

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Mnuchin and Pelosi have been frequent negotiating partners in efforts in recent months to reach a consensus on a new package of coronavirus relief.

Leading lawmakers have been hammering out the government spending measure, a $1.4 trillion bill for the fiscal year that began on Oct. 1. A source said on Tuesday that task was basically done, but lawmakers from both parties still sought to strike a consensus on coronavirus relief, something they have wrangled over for months.

If the leaders can reach agreement, the coronavirus aid could be attached to the government spending bill, which must be passed by Friday to avoid a federal government shutdown.

‘HAVE TO COME TO AGREEMENT’

Pelosi told reporters about an hour before the meeting that the purpose of the session was to “further our discussions.”

“We’ll have to come to agreement. And we hope that that will happen in a way that keeps government open,” she said.

Earlier this year, Congress approved $3 trillion in coronavirus aid. A bipartisan group of lawmakers from the House and Senate on Tuesday unveiled a package of $908 billion in two parts.

One was a $748 billion proposal, including aid to small businesses, the unemployed and vaccine distribution. The other includes the two main sticking points on Capitol Hill that McConnell cited: the liability protections for businesses and other organizations, and $160 billion for state and local governments.

President-elect Joe Biden has urged Congress to act quickly on coronavirus aid before he takes office on Jan. 20. Even if it does, his new administration likely will seek another round of aid next year.

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Democrats have been pushing hard for aid to state and local governments to insure against laying off more workers, including police, firefighters and emergency medical personnel. Many Republicans oppose that, while demanding liability protections for businesses, an idea opposed by many Democrats.

(Reporting by Susan Cornwell and Richard Cowan; Additional reporting by Daphne Psaledakis; Editing by Aurora Ellis and Peter Cooney)

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