By Kristina Peterson 

WASHINGTON -- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin will talk on the phone Tuesday afternoon about coronavirus relief, according to someone familiar with the plans.

The new talks come as lawmakers start a year-end sprint this week to keep the government running, provide more coronavirus aid and pass an annual defense bill. President Trump's focus on challenging his election loss has injected more uncertainty into the legislative outcome.

As the pandemic surges nationwide, Democratic and Republican leaders are under increasing pressure from rank-and-file lawmakers to agree on some Covid relief, prodded in part by the looming expiration of aid provisions from bills passed earlier this year. Those include broadened unemployment insurance coverage as well as expanded paid sick and family leave.

They are also working to complete a full-year spending bill before the government's current funding expires at 12:01 a.m. on Dec. 12. And Congress must still pass the annual defense policy bill, which has broad bipartisan support -- despite a veto threat from the president over a provision that would rename military bases honoring the Confederacy.

Even if lawmakers who have been mired in disagreements for months can finally coalesce around their year-end list, they will need cooperation from Mr. Trump, who has refused to concede the presidential race and continues to make allegations of fraud that have been dismissed in court.

Lawmakers have made the most progress on the fastest-approaching deadline: keeping the government running beyond Dec. 11, when its current funding expires. Last week, Senate Republicans and House Democrats agreed on how to divvy up the $1.4 trillion pot of money across the 12 spending bills that fund the government. Now they are scurrying to complete those and produce a full-year spending bill by the weekend or early next week, aides said.

The deepest divisions are over the Homeland Security spending bill, where Republicans and Democrats are at odds over whether to include funding for building a wall along the border with Mexico and purchasing detention beds for immigrants. But Democrats said they were less anxious about funding Homeland Security for next year, knowing that President-elect Joe Biden will be in charge of immigration policy. Mr. Biden has said he would stop building the wall, among other changes to Mr. Trump's immigration agenda.

After months of wrangling over the cost and contents of a coronavirus relief package, congressional leaders have yet to signal any compromise. But the coming expiration of crucial aid provisions, right as the virus is intensifying nationwide, is fueling calls on both sides of the aisle to pass new stimulus measures before adjourning this year. The administration's actions halting evictions and suspending payments on federal student loans also both end at the new year.

Republicans have criticized Democratic leaders for insisting on a larger and more expensive package, including funding for state and local governments.

"With the coronavirus surging from coast to coast, the American people have gone entirely without any additional aid -- even the least controversial, most bipartisan programs -- on Democrats' say-so," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) said on the Senate floor Monday.

Democrats, meanwhile, have faulted Republicans for supporting a smaller amount of aid, while also giving priority to legal protections for businesses and other entities.

Mr. McConnell's view "seems to be that the only things that should be in this bill are things Republicans approve of, even if the needs of the country -- the desperate needs of the country -- are beyond the small list that Republicans might support," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) said Monday. "And that is not real compromise."

If leaders are able to reach an agreement on Covid relief, it is likely to be wrapped into the spending bill, rather than passed on its own, according to lawmakers and aides.

"The more likely course is the omnibus and the Covid relief strengthen each other politically and substantively, and therefore it's a better bet to put them through together," said Rep. David Price (D., N.C.), a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee.

Mr. Trump, whose signature would be needed for any legislation to become law, has commented little on the coronavirus relief debate after the election. Previously, Mr. Trump urged Mr. Mnuchin to cut a deal hovering around $2 trillion with Mrs. Pelosi, saying he hoped to send out a second round of direct payments to Americans. Those negotiations ended in a political stalemate as Election Day neared.

Since the election, Mr. Trump has been focused on contesting its outcome. Most GOP leaders have backed Mr. Trump's legal challenges and not yet recognized Mr. Biden as the president-elect. But both Mr. McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) have indicated that state certification deadlines in December will play an important role in completing the election's outcome. That timeline could create a combustible situation if more Republicans acknowledge Mr. Trump's loss right when his cooperation will be needed on legislation.

States are supposed to resolve any outstanding issues about results by Dec. 8, the deadline to certify their electoral votes and the electors who will cast them in the Electoral College. The electors meet in the capitals of their respective states on Dec. 14 and vote to complete their states' election results.

Mr. Biden has joined Mrs. Pelosi and Mr. Schumer in urging Congress to reach an agreement before the end of the year. He has said he supports Mrs. Pelosi's push for a larger bill.

Even before the election, Mr. Trump had already threatened to veto one of the most popular bills passed by Congress each year, the annual defense policy bill. The president balked at slightly different provisions in the House and Senate bills that would require the Defense Department to rename U.S. military bases that honor the Confederacy. Negotiators are currently working to hammer out a compromise defense bill that would then need to be passed by each chamber.

Write to Kristina Peterson at kristina.peterson@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

December 01, 2020 10:43 ET (15:43 GMT)

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