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Discussions Drag On For Another Coronavirus Relief Bill

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So when are millions of struggling Americans going to get another round of financial aid? That answer - not likely before the holidays. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are struggling to find an agreement. And there is so much at stake here because a lot of the additional financial relief Americans are receiving will expire this month. We have NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell with us. Hi, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hi there.

GREENE: I feel like a lot of people who might face eviction or who have been out of work for all this time are justified in wondering what is happening on Capitol Hill. Can you tell us?

SNELL: Yeah. So the state of play this week was that they started out with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer working with a bipartisan group on a kind of a negotiating starting point of $900 billion. And that really seemed to be gaining steam. That would have stopped the expiration of several programs that are supposed to end at the end of this month. But then Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that he wanted to remove some major sticking points to pave the way for a deal. But things he wanted to take away - one of them - was money for state and local governments. He said it was an exchange for getting rid of liability protections that Republicans favor.

But Democrats said it was just not negotiable for them to get rid of that state and local money because they said layoffs were at stake, that governments needed that money in order to keep people on the job. And then the White House made it even more confusing and complicated with their own offer that included $600 in relief checks, but not unemployment insurance that was in the version that Congress had been talking about. You know, it has been a chaotic week. And this is something that often happens in Congress when they're trying to get to a deal. There is a little bit of chaos. But this is particularly chaotic and at a time when a lot is at stake.

GREENE: Especially chaotic in an already chaotic place.

SNELL: (Laughter) Yes.

GREENE: Well, lawmakers, it sounds like, are essentially giving themselves, like, one more week to cut some sort of deal. Why - is that, like, a self-deadline? Why are they doing that?

SNELL: (Laughter) Some of that is just that they are trying to tie this to spending bills that are working their way through Congress right now. They have to pass the spending bills to avoid a government shutdown. And they do not want to shut down the government before the holidays. You know, and also, Congress just worked well under deadline. And the holidays are a clear deadline and so are the widespread, you know, fears about what will happen to the economy and to people if these programs expire.

But I will say, House Speaker Pelosi did not rule out working between Christmas and New Year's if they can't get a deal done on the timeline that they've set up for themselves. I'll also say that there's now a push from progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders, who say that they're frustrated with the aid packages under discussion. And they want to include stimulus payments to help people who might be protected by eviction bans that are set to expire, people who are behind on rent and bills who need extra cash right now.

GREENE: Yeah. So what happens to them and to so many other people if lawmakers can't find agreement?

SNELL: Yeah. I mentioned that the programs will expire. And that includes unemployment insurance for gig workers and people who already exhausted traditional unemployment benefits. And the federal eviction ban would expire, so would a pause on federal student loan payments and business deductions that were intended to keep these businesses hiring and to keep their employees on despite the pandemic. Plus there are a number of other elements that people may be starting to feel at home.

GREENE: Any expectation that a different president will change the climate on the Hill?

SNELL: That is the expectation for Democrats. But, you know, no matter what happens, things are going to be very tight in the Senate. And, you know, I'm not sure that it'll be actually a lot easier to start getting bipartisan agreement. They've been in a staring contest since July. And each side fundamentally believes the other is wrong about what the country needs. And a lot of that would have to change for deals to be done in a simpler, clearer fashion.

GREENE: All right. NPR's congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell. Kelsey, thank you.

SNELL: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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