By ALLISON PECORIN, ABC News
(WASHINGTON) — A $908 billion COVID-19 relief proposal advanced by a bipartisan group of senators was gaining momentum on Capitol Hill, with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaking over the phone Thursday to discuss pandemic relief for the first time since the November election.
The phone call follows Wednesday’s announcement that Pelosi and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer endorsed the bipartisan framework, worth $1 trillion less than the most recent Democratic relief proposal.
The proposal includes funds for small businesses, state and local government and additional funds for unemployment, but does not include another round of direct checks to Americans.
While this marked progress in negotiations, there remains a long road ahead.
“Compromise is in reach,” McConnell said on the Senate floor Thursday morning, though the path forward that he charted admonished Democratic priorities and highlighted how far apart the two parties remain with just days left to secure a deal.
For months, Democrats have urged McConnell to meet Pelosi for negotiations. McConnell has now stepped into the role previously filled by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who negotiated with Democrats on behalf of the administration.
Pelosi said she is “hopeful” an agreement is within reach, but McConnell’s position on the $908 billion bipartisan proposal remains unclear.
Earlier this week McConnell shopped around a separate proposal that was $400 billion less than the bipartisan framework.
That proposal, crafted in consultation with Mnuchin, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy was meant to advance a bill President Donald Trump might “actually sign.”
But on Thursday, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., met with Trump and said a $908 billion proposal was “well within the ballpark of what (Trump) would support.”
“I’ve talked extensively to the president about this,” said Graham who announced his own support for the bipartisan deal though said he wanted tweaks to the liability protections portion. “The number is not the problem. … It’s policy differences. I think the president’s of the mindset a bill would be good for the country, he would like to see it happen, but it’s got to have the right policy.”
The president on Thursday afternoon told reporters that he would “absolutely” support some sort of COVID-19 relief, though it is unclear if he was endorsing a specific proposal
Trump tweeted in favor of a bipartisan agreement in November, calling for a “big and focused” relief package.
McConnell also met Thursday, behind closed doors, with members of the bipartisan group, Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, Bill Cassidy, R-La., Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Mitt Romney, R-Utah.
“What we were able to do was just kind of present the whole proposal,” Murkowski said. “So no commitments back and forth, but just kind of an explanation and walkthrough as to where we are.”
The members declined to characterize how McConnell received their pitch.
“I’m not going to talk about what he’s doing,” Romney said. “I can only talk about what we’re doing.”
“We’ve spent more time with them than I have my family,” Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said of the bipartisan group.
The group met Thursday morning and was meeting again Thursday evening and then continuing through the weekend in hopes of presenting bill text for consideration early next week.
The proposal is getting “more and more support from Republicans and Democrats,” Romney said.
“I like the effort,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., a staunch Trump ally. “It strikes the right balance of compromise and it’s a number that’s doable.”
But there remain sticking points for both parties in the bipartisan package.
“We need to make progress, but there are issues, in particular the size of state aid and the liability relief where there’s no language and I’m waiting for language,” said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del.
Liability protections for small businesses, universities, health care providers and others have been a key focus for McConnell. For some Democrats it is a poison pill.
Republicans meanwhile will face challenges from some members who find the overall cost of the bipartisan plan unpalatable.
Cassidy said he doesn’t believe the price tag will prove an insurmountable challenge. The package is worth $908 billion but would repurpose leftover funds from the $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief bill passed in March. It would require $348 billion in new funds.
Asked if the price tag might be an issue for some GOP members, Cassidy said, “it might be.”
“But I think it’s not a problem for more of them,” he added. “They recognize that things are getting worse.”
Graham said that if Trump gets behind the bipartisan package, both parties will fall in line.
“Here’s what I believe: that there’s a bipartisan package for $908 billion that will really help people. It’s got to have the right policy and that if the president came out for it, you’d have a large number of Republicans and Democrats vote for it.”
But if lawmakers are going to vote on anything, it needs to happen soon.
The House is expected to leave town until January at the end of next week. Government funding expires in eight days and some senators have said that elements of COVID-19 relief could be attached to the must-pass bill, setting the stage for a large partisan battle just days before a possible government shutdown.
Romney said he’s sure some members would like “to take the pieces of what we’ve done and perhaps apply it to an omnibus bill or a continuing resolution.”
“That’s an option, but we’re continuing to negotiate a full package,” he added.
ABC News’ Trish Turner, John Parkinson and Ben Gittleson contributed to this report.
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