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Group Of Moderate Lawmakers Proposes Bipartisan Pandemic Relief Bill

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Many people are counting down to the end of 2020, some with anticipation because they are just done with this garbage year, many others with trepidation because it could get worse. December 31 is when several key support programs from the government expire. Congressional leaders in the White House have failed for months to reach a deal on a new round of coronavirus relief, but today there were signs of progress on Capitol Hill. NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis joins us for the latest on the talks.

Hi, Sue.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: So tell us about these signs of progress. This bipartisan group of House and Senate lawmakers have released a framework on a bill that they hope can break the logjam on relief. What's in the draft bill?

DAVIS: Well, this is an effort being driven by centrists in the House and Senate, including Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of Virginia - West Virginia, excuse me - and Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine. They put forward a $908 billion bill, and a good portion of it would extend two really popular existing government programs. It would extend additional federal unemployment insurance by $300 a week for 18 weeks. That would carry them through March. And it would provide another big influx of cash to a popular small business lending program that's kept a lot of employers afloat these past few months. This is, of course, unlikely to be the final bill. But the effort today certainly speaks to the frustration many are feeling at party leaders in the White House for continually failing to be able to reach an agreement here.

SHAPIRO: How have party leaders responded today?

DAVIS: It's been pretty lukewarm. They've all been briefed on it. No one's embraced it. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer sort of patted it on the head and called it a good effort. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said it was not likely to be the last word because he's not going to bring anything to the floor that doesn't have President Trump's support.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MITCH MCCONNELL: The issue is, do we want to get a result? And I like to remind everybody that the way you get a result is you have to have a presidential signature. So I felt the first thing we needed to do was to find out what the president would, in fact, sign.

DAVIS: The upside here for negotiations is the White House has repeatedly indicated they'd be willing to sign off on more than a trillion dollars in relief measures. It's really been Senate Republicans and McConnell who have been resistant to spending that much money. So Treasury Secretary Mnuchin has to thread a needle here, you know? He needs to spend as much as the White House thinks is necessary to actually address the needs of the pandemic and not alienate too many Senate Republicans because they need their votes.

SHAPIRO: Well, what is the state of talks between congressional leaders in the White House?

DAVIS: Well, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Mnuchin spoke on the phone today. She and Schumer have also sent a letter to Mitch McConnell last night with the latest offer in it. Schumer declined to tell reporters today what was in that offer, which, as you know, is maybe one indication that they're actually trying to advance talks if they're not talking about it (laughter).

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Yeah.

DAVIS: McConnell is working on his own proposal. He briefed Senate Republicans on it today. It's probably not going to be everything Democrats want. But he told reporters that the Biden administration will have another chance next year. And Biden today told reporters that his transition team is doing - working on something exactly like that. And he encouraged Congress to do something robust in the lame duck.

McConnell also made it clear that if there is a deal, he intends to attach it to a must-pass spending bill to avoid a government shutdown. And that deadline is next week, December 11. So it should be pretty clear by the end of next week which way this is going.

SHAPIRO: OK. So with all that as the wind-up, what's the bottom line? How likely is it that there will be something passed and signed before the end of the year?

DAVIS: Well, a lot of these programs expire at the end of the year if Congress does nothing, so it means that millions and millions of Americans could lose unemployment benefits and have literally zero support at a time where we're expecting more business closures. Also, programs that protect people from housing evictions and defer student loan payments will expire. So I think all of that is fueling hope that Congress can cut some kind of deal to ease that pain before they all go home to toast the holidays with their families.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis.

Thank you.

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

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