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Frustration, anger on Capitol Hill over stalled bipartisan stimulus bill

"It's time for us to do something to get off our damn asses," said one lawmaker who worked on the $908 billion bipartisan proposal.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell puts on a face mask as he leaves the Mansfield Room in the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday after speaking to reporters. Photo by Jim Lo Scalzo/UPI
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell puts on a face mask as he leaves the Mansfield Room in the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday after speaking to reporters. Photo by Jim Lo Scalzo/UPI | License Photo

Dec. 11 (UPI) -- Any progress that's been achieved over the past week on a new round of coronavirus relief in Congress has again run up against a stalemate as negotiators are deadlocked over the latest competing aid proposals.

Lawmakers end another week on Friday without an agreement to provide much-needed stimulus to the U.S. economy and millions of Americans who are struggling financially, nearly a year after the arrival of COVID-19 in the United States.

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No votes are expected in the House until at least Tuesday, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said Thursday. But he vowed the current lame-duck session -- the period through Jan. 3 when the 117th Congress is seated -- won't be adjourned without both a relief package and a government funding bill.

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has also promised to keep working.

"We cannot leave here without having a piece of legislation," she told reporters, suggesting the 116th Congress could remain in session past its scheduled adjournment Dec. 18.

"We've been here after Christmas, you know," she added.

Talks have gained more urgency after the Labor Department reported Thursday that another 853,000 U.S. workers have filed new unemployment claims -- the most since September and about 100,000 more claims than analysts expected.

Last week, a bipartisan group of lawmakers advanced a $908 billion proposal to essentially split the difference between Democrats' $2.2 trillion aid package that passed the House in May and a $500 billion "skinny" measure favored by Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi leaves the House chambers on Tuesday as lawmakers continue to debate a new round of coronavirus stimulus at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI

The proposal was the first tangible progress on stimulus negotiations in months and included provisions like enhanced unemployment payments and aid for medium and small businesses.

However, it includes elements that are firmly opposed by both parties and McConnell's staff has signaled that Senate Republicans likely won't support the proposal in its current form.

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The main sticking point in the bipartisan bill, lawmakers say, is an attempt to combine liability protections for businesses, which Democrats oppose, with billions in aid to state and local governments, which Republicans are against.

"What Mr. McConnell is putting forth in terms of liability is such an assault on America's workers that I hope that the group goes nowhere near what he is presenting," Pelosi said.

McConnell wants to drop both the liability protections and the aid for state and local governments, but Democrats have rejected that call and instead favor "pausing" business liability in exchange for the $160 billion in local government aid contained in the bipartisan bill.

Progress for the bipartisan pitch was slowed more by a $916 billion counterproposal this week from the White House that largely ignores the provisions supported by Democrats.

A $600-per-week payment given to unemployed on top of state benefits, aid that was widely lauded as helpful for struggling Americans, expired in July and is impossible to revive without a new agreement.

Also part of the discussions is another direct stimulus payment to individuals. Most received at least $1,200 from the CARES Act in March and Democrats have called for another payment. The White House proposal does include a direct payment of about half the previous amount.

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Looming in the background of the stalled negotiations is the threat of another government shutdown.

The Senate has not passed a one-week stopgap spending bill passed by the House this week that's needed to keep the federal government running past Friday, when current funding runs out.

Efforts in the Senate to pass the bill have been bogged down by progressive independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, who are seeking to add provisions to give most Americans another stimulus payment of at least $1,200.

"People are certainly going to assume government is broken," said Rep. Denver Riggleman, R-Va., who participated in the bipartisan negotiations. "There's a frustration and an anger in the electorate that's starting to ripple through the United States.

"It's time for us to do something to get off our damn asses."

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