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Dueling paths for coronavirus relief, budget bills as U.S. Congress enters key week

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Twin efforts were underway in the U.S. Congress on Monday to reach a massive government spending deal that would avert a government shutdown, as Republicans and Democrats insisted they want to include a fresh round of aid to a coronavirus-hit nation.

FILE PHOTO: The U.S. Capitol Building is reflected on a marble seating area following a rainstorm at the East Front on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., December 4, 2020. REUTERS/Tom Brenner/File Photo

The leaders of both parties appeared more upbeat about doing the first COVID-19 aid bill since April, while a bipartisan group of lawmakers were pitching their own approach. The COVID-19 aid could be attached to a critical spending measure that must be passed by Friday to avoid a federal government shutdown.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin discussed both the government spending bill and a fresh round of COVID-19 relief on Monday, a Pelosi spokesman said.

Pelosi reiterated Democratic concerns about the liability protections against COVID-19 lawsuits that Republicans seek, and said remaining unresolved items in the spending bill could be resolved easily, Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill wrote on Twitter.

Leading lawmakers were hammering out the government spending measure, a $1.4 trillion bill for the fiscal year that began on Oct. 1. It would include money for programs ranging from healthcare, homeland security and military readiness to foreign aid, national parks and nutrition. They have been operating on temporary funding.

Senator John Cornyn, a senior Republican, said what was needed was an agreement on pandemic relief between Pelosi and Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. He said he hoped for a result by Wednesday.

“I think they have been talking and I’m confident their staff are engaged,” Cornyn told reporters. As for the bipartisan package, “I think it’s having a big, and a positive influence on what’s, what will be ultimately included,” Cornyn said.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby said the government spending bill could be filed as soon as Tuesday, and he hoped it would include COVID-19 relief. “That’s what I’ve always proposed, I hope so. We’ve got to have an agreement on the COVID stuff,” he told reporters.

Without a spending deal, the government would have to begin shutting non-emergency programs and furloughing many workers in the midst of a pandemic that has killed 300,000 Americans, thrown millions out of work, and is getting worse as winter sets in.

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McConnell said his party was ready to pass something on COVID-19 and called on Democrats to do the same in a speech that avoided some of the finger-pointing from both parties last week.

“The next several days are going to bring about one of two outcomes,” McConnell said as he opened the Senate.

“Either 100 senators will be here shaking our heads, slinging blame and offering excuses about why we still have not been able to make a law. Or, we will break for the holidays having sent another huge dose of relief out the door for the people who need it,” he said.

McConnell said funding for personal protective equipment, vaccine distribution and extended unemployment should be in any plan.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers from both the House and Senate unveiled their own package, offering two proposals that could be voted on separately.

One, a $748 billion proposal, includes aid to small businesses, the unemployed and vaccine distribution. It would offer $300 weekly in additional benefits to the unemployed, for 16 weeks.

The other bipartisan proposal includes the two main sticking points on Capitol Hill: the liability protections for business and $160 billion for state and local governments, a Democratic priority. But not even all of the bipartisan group of lawmakers support it.

“Bipartisanship and compromise is alive and well in Washington, contrary to what you have been hearing,” Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat and one of the lead sponsors, told a news conference. “Now it’s up to the leadership to take it and make it happen on a timely basis.”

Local public health agencies worry that they will not have enough money to carry out a massive COVID-19 vaccination program if there is no deal, even as the first U.S. doses of Pfizer Inc’s vaccine were administered on Monday.

President-elect Joe Biden has urged Congress to act quickly on coronavirus aid before he takes office on Jan. 20. Even if it does, his new administration likely will seek another round of aid next year.

Democrats have been pushing hard for aid to state and local governments to insure against laying off more workers, including police, firefighters and emergency medical personnel. Republicans have generally resisted this.

Reporting by Susan Cornwell; Additional reporting by Richard Cowan, Patricia Zengerle and David Shepardson in WashingtonEditing by Scott Malone, Matthew Lewis, Jonathan Oatis and Sonya Hepinstall