Negotiators report progress on long-delayed COVID aid bill

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., walks past reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON – Top Capitol Hill Republicans labored Tuesday to keep the price tag for a long-delayed COVID-19 aid package in check, seeking to prevail in a battle over help for state and local governments, while capping the cost of bonus jobless benefits and direct payments sought by Democrats.

Negotiations on COVID-19 relief intensified Tuesday after months of futility. The top four leaders of Congress met twice in hopes of finally cementing an agreement that would revive subsidies for businesses hit hard by the pandemic, help distribute new coronavirus vaccines, fund schools and renew soon-to-expire jobless benefits.

After two meetings in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's Capitol suite, where Democrats pressed for more generous steps to help individuals struggling in the COVID-19 economy, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., gave an upbeat assessment.

“I think we’ve built a lot of trust," McCarthy said. “I think we’re moving in the right direction. I think there’s a possibility of getting it done."

The uptick in activity could be a sign that an agreement is near, though COVID-19 relief talks have been notoriously difficult.

“We’re making significant progress and I’m optimistic that we’re gonna be able to complete an understanding sometime soon," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

Pressure for a deal is intense. Unemployment benefits run out Dec. 26 for more than 10 million people, many businesses are barely hanging on after nine months of the pandemic, and money is needed to distribute new vaccines that are finally offering hope for returning the country to normal.

McConnell is playing a strong hand in the lame-duck session and is pressuring Democrats to drop a much-sought $160 billion state and local government aid package. Several senior Democrats, including close allies of President-elect Joe Biden — who is eager for an agreement — have said they would go along now and fight for the aid next year.