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Optimism growing for COVID relief bill

By Andrew Taylor

Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Optimism about delivering long-sought COVID-19 relief is building on Capitol Hill after additional rank-and-file lawmakers voiced support for a bipartisan, middle-of-the-road plan taking shape in the Senate and as top congressional leaders connected on the topic for the first time in months.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — frequent rivals but proven dealmakers — spoke on the phone Thursday, a conversation that came the day after Pelosi signaled a willingness to make major concessions in search of a COVID rescue package in the $1 trillion range.

Pelosi’s spokesman announced the telephone conversation, tweeting that it was “about their shared commitment to completing an omnibus and COVID relief as soon as possible.”

“We had a good conversation. I think we’re both interested in getting an outcome, both on the omnibus and on a coronavirus package,” McConnell said.

With COVID-19 caseloads spiraling and the daily death toll equaling records, the momentum for finally passing a second major relief bill is undeniably building, especially after President-elect Joe Biden and top congressional Democrats endorsed a $908 billion bipartisan framework to build an agreement.

Some conservatives, including Republicans from COVID hotspots like North Dakota and Iowa, said they were comfortable with an aid package carrying the almost $1 trillion price tag. Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said the bipartisan plan is “the right balance of compromise and it’s a number that’s doable.”

Added Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.: “There’s a bipartisan package for $908 billion that will really help people.”

The path forward is cluttered with obstacles, however, including a tight time window and hard feelings from months of futile talks and a poisonous election. But the $908 billion cost is what many Republicans, McConnell included, signaled they were willing to accept this summer.

McConnell, R-Ky., his leverage bolstered after the election, continues to take a hard line, insisting in a Thursday floor speech that any relief package be limited to consensus items like another round of “paycheck protection” aid to businesses, funding to distribute vaccines, and aid to schools.

“Why should these impactful and noncontroversial life-preservers be delayed one second longer?” McConnell said. “At long last, let’s do what Congress does when we want an outcome. Let’s make law on all the subjects where we agree.”

Later, McConnell met with Republicans who are working the scaled-back, bipartisan measure, including Susan Collins, R-Maine, Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Mitt Romney, R-Utah. Across Capitol Hill, an allied bipartisan “problem solvers” group claimed growing momentum at an outdoor news conference.

A key McConnell ally, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said he is negotiating with fellow Judiciary Committee member Dick Durbin, D-Ill., over a provision much sought by Republicans and McConnell in particular that would give a liability shield to businesses, universities and other organizations against COVID-related lawsuits.

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