As Covid-19 cases surge, Congress sounds pessimistic about a new relief package

WASHINGTON — Congress remains deadlocked over a coronavirus relief bill, and lawmakers in both parties are pessimistic about passing one in the near future, even as the election slips into the rearview mirror and the number of Covid-19 cases nationally surges.

"I'm kind of discouraged, frankly, right now," Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Tuesday.

After months of stalemate, negotiations have yet to restart. The impasse is about the price tag and what programs should be funded: House Democrats are pushing for a $2.2 trillion plan, and Senate Republicans want a slimmer $500 billion bill.

The election outcome isn't pushing either side to cave in. Voters gave Democrats the presidency but shrank their House majority and, for now, at least, kept the Senate in GOP hands.

President Donald Trump appears disengaged as he refuses to concede defeat and focuses his energy on discrediting the result.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Tuesday that he has had "no private discussions" lately with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., about a coronavirus relief bill but that he is displeased with what Democrats are saying publicly.

He said he supports a measure "narrowly targeted at schools and health care providers" and at small-business relief. He also called for giving liability protections to protect businesses and organizations operating during the pandemic. He said he has "seen no evidence" that Democratic leaders will accept that.

Democrats are pushing for something bigger.

"I just get the sense that Mitch McConnell sees absolutely zero urgency," said Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the top Democrat on the Finance Committee. "And in that sense his position is just an astounding disconnect from what people are really talking about."

The logjam persists at a perilous time for the United States, with the numbers of new daily Covid-19 cases hitting all-time highs and cash-strapped states, businesses and families pleading for federal help. As the federal government prepares to launch an aggressive vaccine distribution, states are also warning that they need federal help to afford the cost of disseminating the injections.

The national coronavirus response continues to be besieged by uncertainty at the top.

Many Republicans are standing by Trump's decision not to concede defeat, which is delaying the transition between his administration and the next.

President-elect Joe Biden has warned that "more people may die" if the White House refuses to coordinate with his transition team. Biden has also backed calls by Democrats for a broad relief package.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Trump's "childish and infantile" refusal to concede is distracting Republican lawmakers from negotiating more Covid-19 relief.

"Senate Republicans are distracted by an angry, petulant president. They're afraid of his wrath. They're afraid of what he might tweet about them. His refusal to accept the results of the election make it harder for Congress to move forward," Schumer told reporters.

Pelosi and Schumer wrote a letter Tuesday afternoon asking McConnell to "come to the table and work with us to produce an agreement" to mitigate the pandemic and economic crises.

The calendar presents another complication: Congress faces a deadline of Dec. 11 to fund the government. Party leaders haven't yet reached an agreement, and even if they do, there is the perennial concern that Trump will refuse to sign the legislation.

Failure to pass funding would shut the federal government down at a time when the economy is already struggling and agencies are trying to respond to the pandemic.

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, who tested positive for the coronavirus earlier this month, met with McConnell on Wednesday.

“I can tell you it's a high priority to make sure we keep our government funded,” Meadows told reporters in the Capitol.

There has been chatter about combining coronavirus aid and a spending bill to keep the government open, but some fear that would only raise the odds of a shutdown.

"You've got to have two agreements. We don't yet have the first one," said Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., chair of the Appropriations Committee.

Shelby said he has spoken to Pelosi about Covid-19 relief. He said Democrats need to substantially cut their $2.5 trillion request to secure a deal.

House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries of New York said Tuesday that Americans are "suffering in a once- in-a-century pandemic" that "requires a once-in-a-century congressional response." He cited the $2.2 billion HEROES Act, which has cleared the Democratic-controlled House but which Senate Republicans have said is too large.

"We passed the HEROES Act not once, but twice," he said. "And hopefully, we'll find common ground with our Senate Republicans in the next few days or weeks, prior to departing for the holidays."

A Democratic aide speculated that the stalemate may break only "when Trump concedes" defeat in the election, at which point the endgame will become clear and serious negotiations can begin.

"If he's not conceding, then it becomes: 'What can we do on Biden's first day?'" the aide said.