House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell spoke Thursday for the first time since at least the 2020 election as Congress scrambles to strike a coronavirus stimulus deal and prevent a government shutdown.
The congressional leaders discussed their "shared commitment to completing an omnibus [spending bill] and COVID relief as soon as possible," Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said in a tweet. They have signaled they want to resolve both thorny issues by Dec. 11, the last day of government funding.
"Yeah, well we had a good conversation," McConnell told reporters of the discussion. "I think we're both interested in getting an outcome, both on the omnibus and on a coronavirus package."
The phone call comes amid the strongest push in months to break a logjam over how to boost an economy and health-care system weighed down by the pandemic. Pelosi engaged in a frantic series of aid talks with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin before the Nov. 3 election, but the discussions did not yield an agreement.
Earlier Thursday, McConnell said he has seen "hopeful signs" for striking a stimulus deal before the end of the year. Among other implications if Congress fails to act, about 12 million people could lose unemployment benefits after Christmas.
"Compromise is within reach. We know where we agree. We can do this," the Kentucky Republican said on the Senate floor.
Whether Democrats, who lead the House and can hold up any bill in the Senate, will accept McConnell's vision of compromise remains to be seen. Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., cut their aid demands Wednesday when they embraced a $908 billion bipartisan proposal as a starting point for talks with McConnell.
Still, the GOP leader rejected the proposal when a bicameral group released it this week. He put forward his own roughly $500 billion plan.
On Thursday, McConnell called for a deal similar to the one he unveiled. It includes Paycheck Protection Program loan funding and money for education and vaccine distribution. Democrats have backed those provisions.
However, it includes one piece Democrats find toxic: Covid-19 liability protections for businesses and universities. Pelosi and Schumer have also repeatedly pushed for state and local government aid and supplemental federal unemployment payments. McConnell's plan does not include those.
Speaking on the Senate floor after his Republican counterpart, Schumer said McConnell "does not seem inclined to compromise."
A coronavirus infection surge and record hospitalizations have led to new economic restrictions and fears of a weakening job market. At the same time, protections for unemployed Americans, renters and federal student loan borrowers put in place earlier this year expire at the end of December.
Congress has run short on time to send more help. Leaders have suggested they could attach relief measures to a government funding bill.
Earlier Thursday, the No. 2 Senate Democrat called for a vote on the $908 billion package. "We don't want to go home and face the reality of what's going to happen at the end of this month," Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois told MSNBC.
"It's inexcusable. We've got to move forward and we want our bill called," he said.
Durbin and President-elect Joe Biden have described the proposal as an imperfect down payment on stimulus as Democrats push for a sweeping aid package. Congressional leaders have acknowledged they will likely consider more relief after Biden takes office on Jan. 20.
Some Republican senators have embraced little or no new stimulus spending, arguing that the economy has improved enough to sustain Americans until a large share of the population receives vaccines. Other GOP lawmakers say the federal government needs to offer more support at a time when more than 20 million Americans are receiving some form of unemployment benefits and food banks across the country see unprecedented demand.
Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y., who helped to craft the $908 billion plan on the House side, told CNBC earlier Thursday that the price tag "is right in the range of reason."