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U.S. Senate leader McConnell urges new COVID-19 aid in broad funding bill

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Congress should include a fresh wave of coronavirus stimulus in a must-pass $1.4 trillion spending bill aimed at heading off a government shutdown in the midst of a pandemic, top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell said on Tuesday.

After a monthslong standoff between Republicans and Democrats that persisted as COVID-19 infections and deaths soared, lawmakers put forth a flurry of proposals in an attempt to pass something this month.

Both McConnell and President-elect Joe Biden separately spoke of passing a coronavirus aid bill quickly and debating an additional bill early next year to address the worst U.S. health crisis in living memory.

But difficult talks over details remained with little time to spare, as Congress rushes to pass a $1.4 trillion bill by Dec. 11 to keep government agencies funded. Without action, a range of government programs would be interrupted and many federal workers would be furloughed.

MCCONNELL PUSHES ‘TARGETED RELIEF’

McConnell said he would like to marry the funding bill with a coronavirus aid measure.

“We need a targeted relief bill” now, McConnell told reporters after meeting with his fellow Republican senators. For months he has been pushing a $500 billion approach that Democrats rejected as insufficient.

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McConnell also said that he consulted with the White House and was circulating to Republican senators the outline of a bill that President Donald Trump would accept. McConnell did not provide details.

McConnell’s outline is very close to the legislation that the Senate leader has been touting for months and was rejected by Democrats, according to one Senate Republican source. The plan includes $332.7 billion in new loans or grants to small businesses, according to a document provided to Reuters.

Meanwhile, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer and House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi delivered to McConnell new ideas for reaching a compromise. Schumer refused to provide details during a press conference.

Schumer called it “a private proposal to help us move the ball forward,” as he accused McConnell of maneuvering to bring a partisan, Republican bill up for a vote instead of incorporating Democratic ideas.

Previously, Schumer and Pelosi sought a $2.2 trillion bill that McConnell rejected.

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THIRD WAY PROPOSED

Earlier on Tuesday, yet another plan was floated by a bipartisan group of senators and House members seeking $908 billion in a range of COVID-19 relief measures.

It would set new emergency assistance for small businesses, unemployed people, airlines and other industries during the pandemic.

It comes with the backing of a group of conservatives and moderates who claim it will appeal to a broad swath of Congress.

Earlier this year, over $3 trillion in coronavirus aid was enacted, which included economic stimulus measures and money for medical supplies.

Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski urged quick action on the bipartisan plan as she ticked off business closures mushrooming in her state of Alaska “during a pretty dark and cold time of year,” with many suffering job losses and food insecurity.

This third proposal would provide emergency aid through March 31, including $228 billion in additional Paycheck Protection Program funds for hotels, restaurants and other small businesses.

State and local governments would receive direct aid under the bipartisan bill, a central demand by Pelosi and her fellow Democrats to prevent layoffs of front-line workers.

U.S. airlines would receive $17 billion for four months of payroll support as part of $45 billion for the U.S. transportation sector that also includes airports, buses and the Amtrak passenger railroad, according to two people familiar with the plan.

The measure includes provisions that Republicans have been pressing for, including new liability protections for businesses and schools grappling with the coronavirus pandemic.

But it is far more expensive than the $500 billion that McConnell has been advocating.

A compromise $300 per week for four months in additional, unemployment benefits would also be in the package, according to the lawmakers. Democrats had been seeking $600.

Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin were expected to discuss coronavirus aid and the must-pass government funding bill on Tuesday.

Reporting by Richard Cowan, Doina Chiacu and Patricia Zengerle; Additional reporting by David Morgan and David Shepardson; Editing by Scott Malone, Jonathan Oatis and Lisa Shumaker

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