WASHINGTON • Twin efforts were under way in the United States Congress 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.
The leaders of both parties now 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, Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill wrote on Twitter.
Mrs 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, Mr Hammill added.
Leading lawmakers were hammering out the government spending measure, a US$1.4 trillion (S$1.9 trillion) Bill for the fiscal year that began on Oct 1.
It would include money for programmes ranging from healthcare, homeland security and military readiness to foreign aid, national parks and nutrition. These programmes have been operating on temporary funding.
Senator John Cornyn, a senior Republican, said what was needed was an agreement on pandemic relief between Mrs Pelosi and Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Mr Cornyn said he hoped for a result by today.
"I think they have been talking, and I am confident their staff are engaged," he told reporters.
Senate Appropriations Committee chairman Richard Shelby said the government spending Bill could be filed as soon as yesterday, and he hoped it would include Covid-19 relief. "That is what I have always proposed, I hope so. We have got to have an agreement on the Covid-19 stuff," he told reporters.
Without a spending deal, the government would have to begin shutting down non-emergency programmes 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.
Mr 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.
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 package, a US$748 billion proposal, includes aid to small businesses, the unemployed and vaccine distribution. It would offer US$300 weekly in additional benefits to the unemployed for 16 weeks.
The other bipartisan proposal includes the two main sticking points on Capitol Hill: liability protections for businesses, and US$160 billion for state and local governments - a Democratic priority. But not even all of the bipartisan group of lawmakers support it.
President-elect Joe Biden has urged Congress to act quickly on coronavirus aid before he takes office on Jan 20.