Virus Talks Drag on as Congress Butts Heads Over Aid Conditions

WASHINGTON (AP) -
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

Lawmakers are giving themselves more time to sort through their end-of-session business on government spending and COVID-19 relief, preparing a one-week stopgap spending bill that would prevent a shutdown this weekend.

The development comes as Capitol Hill is struggling to figure out how to deliver long-delayed pandemic relief, including additional help for businesses hard hit by the pandemic, further unemployment benefits, funding to distribute COVID-19 vaccines and funding demanded by Democrats for state and local governments.

Disagreements flared Monday over one key provision — a proposed liability shield from COVID-19-related lawsuits for businesses, schools and organizations that reopen.

Talks are going more slowly than hoped on a $1.4 trillion omnibus spending bill under assembly by senior members of the powerful Appropriations Committee. The stopgap measure would prevent a government shutdown through Dec. 18.

Three main items of legislation are at issue in the end-of-session agenda: a defense policy bill that President Donald Trump is threatening to veto; the $1.4 trillion government-wide spending bill; and perhaps $900 billion in long-sought COVID-19 relief.

There are two sets of talks on COVID-19 relief — on the leadership level and by a group of Senate moderates — occurring at the same time, and it’s unclear how the negotiators might sort themselves out, lending an air of confusion to the process.

The bipartisan Senate group was set to meet again Monday evening. But a long weekend of talks pushed senators apart on one difficult negotiation, the proposed liability protection that has been a priority of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Republicans initially proposed a sweeping five-year liability shield, retroactive to December 2019, to protect companies and organizations from COVID-19-related lawsuits. Democrats, along with their allies in labor and civil rights groups, roundly dismissed that approach as a danger to workers.

Negotiators suggested a scaled-back liability shield, but a six-month proposal was panned by Republicans and there is no agreement yet from Democrats. The powerful AFL-CIO said Monday it opposes even a short-term liability provision.

It’s clear that McConnell’s Republican majority is demanding the liability protection in exchange for the Democrats’ push for additional money for states and cities battling the COVID-19 crisis.

“The leader had made clear that state and local money is tied to liability protection, so there’s either going to be none for both of those or both of those are going to be provided for,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, told reporters. “My hope is we’ll do both.”

White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said Monday that Trump is comfortable with a deal along the lines of one being put together by the group of Senate moderates and pragmatists.