Filibuster face-off: Schumer, McConnell at loggerheads over U.S. Senate power sharing

By Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A standoff between new U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, and the man he replaced, Republican Mitch McConnell, over a core rule of Senate operations has kept the two from reaching a deal on how to manage the 50-50 chamber.

Schumer is resisting McConnell’s demand for a promise to protect the long-standing Senate rule requiring a supermajority of 60 votes to advance most legislation, known as the legislative filibuster.

Their argument is holding up the basic organization and work of the Senate as it begins the new year with 50 senators from each party. Committees have not reorganized to accommodate new members.

“Things are on hold. I’ve got a lot of things I want to do,” the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, Dick Durbin, told reporters on Thursday.

Democrats have the majority in the Senate because the new vice president, Democrat Kamala Harris, can vote in case of a tie.

But she cannot be expected to be there every day to decide every dispute. So Schumer and McConnell started talking earlier this week about a possible power-sharing deal governing daily operations, similar to a deal struck two decades ago when the Senate also had a 50-50 split.

McConnell is pushing for a commitment from Schumer to protect the filibuster, which some progressive Democrats have suggested should be ditched so that Democrats can pass their agenda without Republican support.

“I cannot imagine the Democratic leader would rather hold up the power-sharing agreement than simply reaffirm that his side won’t be breaking this standing rule of the Senate,” McConnell said Thursday.

Democrats could unilaterally change the rule to require only a simple majority for legislation to advance, if all 50 Democrats plus Harris agreed to do so, a gambit sometimes called the “nuclear option.” In recent years, the rules have been changed to allow most judicial and Cabinet nominations to advance with a simple majority, but not legislation.

Schumer is resisting McConnell’s demand, telling reporters on Thursday he did not want any “extraneous” provisions in the power-sharing deal.

Moderate Democrats like Senator Joe Manchin favor keeping the legislative filibuster. But even Manchin supports Schumer sticking to his guns and not making any promises to McConnell, keeping the threat of going “nuclear” on legislation in reserve if Republicans do not work cooperatively.

“Chuck has the right to do what he’s doing,” Manchin told reporters this week. “He has the right to use that to leverage in whatever he wants to do.”

(Reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Scott Malone and Peter Cooney)

Agreement elusive on U.S. coronavirus relief as bipartisan group releases plan details

By Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Wednesday that lawmakers were still striving for agreement on COVID-19 aid, as a bipartisan group released details of their proposal and the U.S. House of Representatives prepared to vote on a one-week funding bill to provide more time for a deal.

With agreement elusive, the House was poised to vote on Wednesday afternoon on a measure to prevent federal programs from running out of money on Friday at midnight (0500 GMT on Saturday) by extending current funding levels until Dec. 18.

The move gives Congress seven more days to enact a broader, $1.4 trillion “omnibus” spending measure, to which congressional leaders hope to attach the long-awaited COVID-19 relief package – if they can reach a deal on both fronts.

The bipartisan group of lawmakers from the House and Senate released a summary of their $908 billion plan aimed at breaking the months-long stalemate between the parties over more coronavirus relief.

The proposal would extend for 16 weeks pandemic-related unemployment insurance programs due to expire at the end of the month. The measure would also provide an extra $300 a week in supplemental unemployment benefits for 16 weeks, from the end of December into April.

“We are literally on the five-yard line now,” said Democratic Representative Josh Gottheimer, a member of the bipartisan group. “We have no choice but to get this done.”

The summary said there was agreement in principle on two thorny issues: liability protections for businesses desired by Republicans and $160 billion in aid to state and local governments sought by Democrats. Lawmakers said they were still working on details.

On Tuesday evening, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin weighed in for the first time since before the November election, saying he had presented a $916 billion relief proposal to Pelosi that includes money for state and local governments and liability protections for businesses.

But Pelosi and Schumer said they viewed the bipartisan negotiations as the best hope for COVID-19 relief.

Other Democrats also reacted cautiously to Mnuchin’s proposal, asking why it lacked supplementary benefits for the unemployed while including direct checks of $600 for all individuals.

“How can anybody say that I’m gonna send another check to people that already have a paycheck and job, and not send anything to the unemployed? It doesn’t make any sense to me at all,” said Senator Joe Manchin, a member of the bipartisan group, told reporters.

After the vote Wednesday on the stopgap funding measure in the Democratic-run House, the Republican-led Senate is expected to follow by the end of the week, then send the measure to President Donald Trump to sign into law.

Congress approved $3 trillion in aid in the spring to mitigate the effects of shutdowns to curb the spread of the coronavirus, but legislators have not been able to agree on any additional help since.

The pandemic has roared back to levels surpassing those seen early in the crisis, with more than 200,000 new infections reported each day and fresh shutdowns in some areas. More than 287,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 so far, and millions have been thrown out of work.

(Reporting by Susan Cornwell, David Morgan and Richard Cowan; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall, Peter Cooney, Jonathan Oatis and Cynthia Osterman)

Congressional COVID-19 impasse continues, Pelosi warns ‘house is burning down’

By Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Top Democrats in the U.S. Congress on Thursday urged renewed negotiations over a multitrillion-dollar coronavirus aid proposal, but the top Republican immediately rejected their approach as too expensive, continuing a months-long impasse.

House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer ticked off a litany of grim data about the spread of the coronavirus in the United States, with eight straight days of over 100,000 new coronavirus cases being reported each day.

“It’s like the house is burning down and they just refuse to throw water on it,” Pelosi said of Republicans.

She and Schumer told a news conference that President-elect Joe Biden’s victory strengthened the Democratic position, which is to spend at least $2.2 trillion on another round of coronavirus aid, on top of the $3 trillion Congress has approved since the pandemic began. Republican President Donald Trump has not conceded to Biden.

“We’re willing to sit down and talk; they haven’t wanted to talk,” Schumer said, referring to the post-election session of Congress that lasts until the end of the year.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, speaking to reporters in a hallway a few minutes later, said he preferred previous Republican proposals in the range of $500 billion, which he said would be aimed at the “residual problems.”

“I gather she (Pelosi) and the Democratic leader in the Senate still are looking at something dramatically larger. That’s not a place I think we’re willing to go,” McConnell said.

“But I do think there needs to another package,” the Republican said. “Hopefully we can get past the impasse.”

A senior official in Trump’s administration said it was leaving any negotiations about a coronavirus relief package to McConnell and Pelosi for the time being. But there was no sign such talks were imminent. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin negotiated unsuccessfully with Pelosi for several weeks earlier in the fall.

Pelosi and Schumer spoke with Biden on Thursday by phone and the three “discussed the urgent need for the Congress to come together in the lame duck session on a bipartisan basis” to pass more coronavirus relief, a statement from Biden’s transition team said.

The bill should include resources to fight the pandemic, relief for working families and small businesses, support for state and local governments, expanded unemployment insurance, and affordable healthcare for millions of families, the statement said.

The Democratic-majority House in May approved an additional $3.4 trillion in coronavirus aid, but it went nowhere in McConnell’s Senate, where Schumer’s Democrats blocked less expensive Republican proposals from floor action.

The longest-serving Republican in Congress, 87-year-old Representative Don Young, announced on Thursday that he had been infected with coronavirus, the latest of over 20 members of Congress to have been infected.

(Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Aurora Ellis)

Republicans back Trump’s right to challenge Biden victory

By Steve Holland and Simon Lewis

WASHINGTON/WILMINGTON, Del. (Reuters) – President Donald Trump will push ahead on Tuesday with longshot legal challenges to his election loss, as Republican U.S. lawmakers and state officials defended his right to do so.

Pennsylvania Republican state lawmakers called for an audit of results in the state that on Saturday enabled Democrat Joe Biden to secure the more than 270 votes in the Electoral College he needed to win the presidency.

Biden, the president-elect due to take office on Jan. 20, 2021, also leads Trump in the popular vote by more than 4.6 million votes, according to the latest count of ballots.

Trump has made baseless claims that fraud was marring the results. The count has been delayed by a surge in mail-in ballots prompted by voters’ desire to avoid infection from the coronavirus pandemic.

Judges have tossed out lawsuits in Michigan and Georgia, and experts say Trump’s legal efforts have little chance of changing the election result.

The leading Republican in Congress, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, on Monday carefully backed Trump, saying that he was “100% within his rights to look into allegations of irregularities,” without citing any evidence.

McConnell’s comments represent the thinking of most Senate Republicans for now, said a senior Senate Republican aide. “The position is tenable until it isn’t and might last for a week or two before it becomes untenable,” the aide said.

The dispute has slowed Biden’s preparations for governing.

A Trump appointee who heads the office charged with recognizing election results has yet to do so, preventing the Biden transition team from moving into federal government office space or accessing funds to hire staff.

The General Services Administrator Emily Murphy, appointed by Trump in 2017, has yet to determine that “a winner is clear,” a spokeswoman said. Biden’s team is considering legal action.

BARR MOVE PROMPTS RESIGNATION

U.S. Attorney General William Barr on Monday told federal prosecutors to “pursue substantial allegations” of irregularities of voting and the counting of ballots.

He also told them that “fanciful or far-fetched claims” should not be a basis for investigation. His letter did not indicate the Justice Department had uncovered voting irregularities affecting the outcome of the election.

Richard Pilger, who for years has served as director of the Election Crimes Branch in the Justice Department, said in an internal email he was resigning from his post after he read “the new policy and its ramifications”.

The previous Justice Department policy, designed to avoid interjecting the federal government into election campaigns, had discouraged overt investigations “until the election in question has been concluded, its results certified, and all recounts and election contests concluded.”

Biden’s campaign said Barr was fueling Trump’s far-fetched allegations of fraud.

“Those are the very kind of claims that the president and his lawyers are making unsuccessfully every day, as their lawsuits are laughed out of one court after another,” said Bob Bauer, a senior adviser to Biden.

A bipartisan group of six former U.S. Justice Department officials blasted Barr’s move.

“The voters decide the winner in an election, not the President, and not the Attorney General,” wrote the group, which includes Don Ayer, a deputy attorney general under former President George H.W. Bush.

“We have seen absolutely no evidence of anything that should get in the way of certification of the results, which is something the states handle, not the federal government.”

REPUBLICANS REMAIN LOYAL

Although a few Republicans have urged Trump to concede, the president still had the support of prominent party leaders who had yet to congratulate Biden.

Trump’s campaign on Monday filed a lawsuit to block Pennsylvania officials from certifying Biden’s victory in the battleground state, where the Democrat’s lead grew to more than 45,000 votes, or nearly 0.7 percentage points, with 98% of ballots counted on Tuesday morning.

It alleged the state’s mail-in voting system violated the U.S. Constitution by creating “an illegal two-tiered voting system” where voting in person was subject to more oversight than voting by mail.

“The Trump campaign’s latest filing is another attempt to throw out legal votes,” Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, said on Twitter.

Pennsylvania state Representative Dawn Keefer led a group of Republican state lawmakers on Tuesday in calling for a bipartisan investigation with subpoena powers to see if the “election was conducted fairly and lawfully.”

Asked about any evidence of fraud, Keefer told reporters, “We’ve just gotten a lot of allegations,” adding that “they’re too in the weeds” for her to know more without investigating.

Biden will give a speech on Tuesday defending the Affordable Care Act, the landmark healthcare law popularly known as Obamacare, as the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on a lawsuit backed by the Trump administration to invalidate it.

(Additional reporting by Steve Holland, Richard Cowan, Jan Wolfe, Sarah N. Lynch and Doina Chiacu in Washington, Simon Lewis in Wilmington, Delaware; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Scott Malone, Angus MacSwan, Chizu Nomiyama and Howard Goller

McConnell: Signs of economic recovery point to smaller COVID-19 stimulus

By David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Friday that economic statistics, including a 1 percentage point drop in the unemployment rate, showed that Congress should enact a smaller coronavirus stimulus package that is highly targeted at the pandemic’s effects.

The Republican senator told a news conference in Kentucky that the fall to a 6.9% jobless rate, combined with recent evidence of overall economic growth, showed the U.S. economy is experiencing a dramatic recovery.

“I think it reinforces the argument that I’ve been making for the last few months, that something smaller – rather than throwing another $3 trillion at this issue – is more appropriate,” McConnell told reporters.

But his call for a narrow package was quickly rejected by House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, who has been working to broker a COVID-19 stimulus deal near the $2 trillion mark with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

“It doesn’t appeal to me at all, because they still have not agreed to crush the virus. If you don’t crush the virus, we’re still going to have to be dealing with the consequences of the virus,” Pelosi told a news conference on Capitol Hill.

“That isn’t anything that we should even be looking at. It wasn’t the right thing before,” she added.

Senate Republicans, who oppose a larger package, have twice failed to move forward with smaller legislation worth $500 billion due to Democratic opposition.

Pelosi insisted that any agreement must include effective support for testing, tracing and vaccine development, as well as aid to state and local governments. Trump and his Republican allies have balked at Democratic demands for state and local aid, calling it a bailout for Democratic-run states and cities.

(Reporting by David Morgan; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Oil drops 3% as U.S. vote count continues and coronavirus cases rise

By Jessica Resnick-Ault

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Oil fell below $40 a barrel on Friday as drawn-out vote counting in the U.S. presidential election kept markets on edge and new lockdowns in Europe to halt surging COVID-19 infections sparked concern over the demand.

In the U.S. election, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden took the lead over President Donald Trump in Georgia and Pennsylvania on Friday, edging closer to winning the White House as a handful of states continue to count votes.

Three days after polls closed, Biden has a 253 to 214 lead in the state-by-state Electoral College vote that determines the winner, according to Edison Research. Winning Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes would put the former vice president over the 270 he needs to secure the presidency.

Coronavirus cases in the United States surged by at least 120,276 on Thursday, according to a Reuters tally, the second consecutive daily record rise as the outbreak spreads in every region.

Italy recorded its highest daily number of COVID-19 infections on Thursday while cases surged by at least 120,276 in the United States, the second consecutive daily record as the outbreak spreads across the country.

Brent crude fell $1.28, or 3.13%, to $39.65 by 11:33 a.m. EST (1633 GMT). U.S. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) dropped $1.24, or 3.08% to $39.65 a barrel.

Still, Brent was heading for a 6% weekly gain, and U.S. crude was up 4.5% on the week.

Diminishing prospects of a large U.S. stimulus package were also weighing on the market.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Friday that economic statistics including a 1 percentage point drop in the U.S. unemployment rate showed that Congress should enact a smaller coronavirus stimulus package that is highly targeted at the effects of the pandemic.

“Crude oil is very sensitive to the stimulus expectations, which just took a hit for the worse,” said Bob Yawger, director of energy futures at Mizuho. “The coronavirus situation is as negative a demand indicator as you can get,” he said.

Providing some support, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and allies including Russia, a group known as OPEC+, could delay bringing back 2 million barrels per day of supply in January, given weaker demand after new lockdowns.

U.S. crude inventories plunged last week by 8 million barrels, against analyst expectations for an increase.

(Additional reporting by Aaron Sheldrick; Editing by David Goodman and Louise Heavens)

Analysis: Trump or Biden, new U.S. president faces troubled economy

By Ann Saphir and Jonnelle Marte

(Reuters) – It’s still not clear yet if the next U.S. president will be incumbent Donald Trump or Democratic challenger Joe Biden, but whoever triumphs will face monumental challenges on the economic front.

The recession has been ugly. It has wiped away more than a year of economic output and more than five years of jobs growth.

The workforce is now smaller than it was a year before Trump first took office.

One bright spot – consumer spending – is stronger than it was right after the pandemic exploded in March, but still only back to where it was last June.

Housing prices are on the rise, which is a great thing for U.S. homeowners but at the same time is worsening the affordability crisis for aspiring home buyers.

Manufacturing activity – a key concern in the Midwestern battleground states – has rebounded, but manufacturing employment is in worse shape than employment overall.

And the coronavirus is still surging across most of the United States. Nearly 6,000 people died last week, and there’s growing concern that the U.S. might need to reinstate lockdowns that happened across Europe in order to get it under control.

But despite signs the economy has begun to slow again amid another viral onslaught, “it is almost certain that the economy will get better over the course of 2021,” says Jason Furman, a key economic advisor to Barack Obama, the last U.S. president elected during a time of economic turmoil.

Late 2021 is still a long ways away, not just in political terms but for those living paycheck to paycheck, or out of work.

Federal Reserve policymaker projections put unemployment at 5.5% by the end of next year – worse than the 4.7% when Trump was first elected, but an improvement over the current 7.9%.

Beyond jobs lost and economic output curtailed, either Trump or Biden will face a list of long-term headwinds including deepening inequality, rising federal debt and tattered international trade relations.

In the run-up to the election, Trump consistently polled better than Biden on his ability to create jobs and manage the economy, if not the virus.

But even with the election outcome uncertain, and likely to remain so for some time amid legal challenges, stock market investors like what they see.

That’s partly because Republicans look likely to keep their hold on the Senate, leaving policy priorities relatively unchanged if it’s Trump emerging the winner, or as preventive force to a president Biden from trying to push through any big policy changes should he come out on top in the ballot box.

It’s also because Senate Majority Leader Republican Mitch McConnell signaled Wednesday he was open to a new coronavirus aid bill in the “lame duck” session before the elected members of Senate and U.S. House of Representatives are sworn in.

For the still-weak economy, a lot will depend on the timing, size and shape of a pandemic relief package, which eluded lawmakers and the White House before the election.

A more modest fiscal package could mean “the growth outlook and corporate profits may not be as vigorous as hoped,” said James Knightley, chief international economist for ING.

A Biden presidency with a majority Republican Senate could offer the worst case for the economy in 2021 because Republicans are likely to oppose a substantial stimulus package, said Matthew Luzzetti, chief U.S. economist at Deutsche Bank.

That would be bad news for the millions of low- and middle-income Americans out of work and struggling to find jobs in sectors such as travel and entertainment that are likely to remain moribund until the pandemic is under better control.

A scenario where Trump is re-elected and the Senate stays in Republican control could potentially result in more stimulus because Trump has advocated for more stimulus and could have more sway if he is re-elected, Luzzetti said.

Whatever the election outcome, any aid package should provide additional assistance for the unemployed, help for small businesses and assistance for state and local governments, to keep economic momentum going, Luzzetti said.

(Reporting by Ann Saphir and Jonnelle Marte; Editing by Heather Timmons, Paul Simao and Edward Tobin)

‘Full steam ahead:’ Senate Republicans to push court nominee despite Trump’s COVID-19 status

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee’s plan to begin confirmation hearings for U.S. Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett on Oct. 12 remain unchanged, despite President Donald Trump’s positive COVID-19 test result, a Senate aide said on Friday.

“Full steam ahead,” the aide to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham responded to Reuters, when asked if the hearing schedule for hearings to begin on Oct. 12 could change.

Graham spoke to Trump on Friday morning and said the first thing Trump asked was about was the Senate’s plan for his nominee’s confirmation, the aide added.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also said the Senate would advance Barrett’s confirmation but sounded a cautious note about the potential impact of COVID-19.

“I think we can move forward. Our biggest enemy, obviously, is … the coronavirus, keeping everybody healthy and well and in place to do our job,” McConnell told radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt.

McConnell described the Senate’s decision on whether to confirm Barrett as being “front and center for the American people” and said the Senate would act after a committee recommendation due Oct. 22.

Barrett’s nomination faces fierce opposition from Senate Democrats and will face questions about her judicial philosophy and approach to the law when she comes before Graham’s panel.

Democrats argue the vacancy should be filled after the next president is chosen on Nov. 3, a view shared by a majority of Americans, according to recent national polls. Trump’s Republican allies, who hold a 53-47 majority in the Senate, have vowed to follow a compressed timeline to confirm her before then.

Barrett, seen as a reliable conservative, would replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a champion of gender equality and other liberal causes who died on Sept. 18 at age 87. She previously sat for a hearing when she was appointed by Trump to the Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2017.

(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Scott Malone and Chizu Nomiyama)

White House, Democrats remain far from deal on fresh round of COVID-19 aid

By David Morgan and Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi cautioned on Thursday that Democrats and the Trump administration remain far from agreement on COVID-19 relief in several key areas, saying the two sides were locked in debate over both dollars and values.

Congressional Democrats led by Pelosi have proposed a $2.2 trillion package to respond to a pandemic that has killed more than 207,000 Americans and thrown millions out of work. Republican President Donald Trump’s negotiating team has suggested a $1.6 trillion response, and the White House on Thursday dismissed Democrats’ offer as not serious.

As lawmakers prepared to leave Washington for the remaining weeks of the 2020 presidential and congressional campaign, Pelosi was to speak again to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin by phone at 1 p.m. EDT (1700 GMT), a source familiar with the situation said. They were expected to try to bridge divisions over aid to state and local governments, Democratic demands for a child tax credit and stronger worker safety, healthcare and small businesses.

“We not only have a dollars debate, we have a values debate. Still, I’m optimistic,” Pelosi said at her weekly news conference.

That public confidence belied Pelosi’s message to fellow Democrats in a Thursday call. She told colleagues “I don’t see a deal happening right now,” a Democratic leadership aide said, confirming an earlier Politico report.

White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany dismissed the Democratic proposal as “not a serious offer.”

Pelosi said of the White House proposal on Bloomberg TV: “This isn’t half a loaf. What they’re offering is the heel of the loaf.”

A bipartisan deal has been long delayed by disagreements over Democratic demands for aid to state and local governments and Republican insistence for a provision protecting businesses and schools from coronavirus-related lawsuits.

Republican Senator Mike Braun told CNBC on Thursday that a deal worth over $1.6 trillion could be rejected by one-third to one-half of Senate Republicans. That would still allow a bill to pass with support from Democrats.

Pelosi and Mnuchin met for 90 minutes in the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday and each emerged pledging to continue discussions.

Mnuchin raised hopes of an agreement by telling reporters that the discussions had made “a lot of progress in a lot of areas.”

Lawmakers and securities analysts viewed talks as a last-gasp effort to secure relief ahead of the Nov. 3 election for tens of millions of Americans and business including U.S. airlines, which have begun furloughing over 32,000 workers.

The Trump administration has proposed a $20 billion extension in aid for the battered airline industry, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows told reporters late on Wednesday. The extension would run for six months.

Mnuchin said separately that a deal would also include direct payments to American individuals and families.

Pressure for a deal has been mounting on the White House and Congress, from the devastating effects of a coronavirus pandemic that has infected more than 7.2 million people in the United States.

The House of Representatives was expected to vote on its $2.2 trillion Democratic package, a day after initial plans for action were delayed to give more time for a deal to come together.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican who has not participated directly in the negotiations, said on Wednesday that the House bill’s spending total was too high.

(Reporting by Susan Cornwell and David Morgan; additional reporting by Susan Heavey, Doina Chicacu, Daphne Psaledakis and Lisa Lambert; Editing by Scott Malone, Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

Pelosi, Mnuchin approach 11th hour on U.S. COVID-19 aid talks

By David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin were expected to try again on Thursday to reach a deal on COVID-19 relief, while the House of Representatives stood ready for a second day to move a Democratic bill if talks fail.

The two sides appeared to be about $600 billion apart on spending, as lawmakers prepared to depart Washington for the final weeks of the 2020 presidential and congressional election campaign. Mnuchin has offered a proposal approaching $1.6 trillion. House Democrats were poised to vote on legislation containing $2.2 trillion in aid.

A bipartisan deal has been long delayed by disagreements over Democratic demands for aid to state and local governments and Republican assistance for a provision protecting businesses from coronavirus-related lawsuits.

Pelosi and Mnuchin met for 90 minutes in the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday and each emerged pledging to continue discussions.

Mnuchin raised hopes of an agreement by telling reporters that the discussions had made “a lot of progress in a lot of areas.”

Pelosi’s office was not immediately available for comment. But lawmakers and securities analysts viewed the day’s expected talks as a last-gasp effort to secure relief ahead of the Nov. 3 election for tens of millions of Americans and business including U.S. airlines, which were due to begin furloughing over 32,000 workers.

The Trump administration has proposed a $20 billion extension in aid for the battered airline industry, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows told reporters late on Wednesday. The extension would run for six months.

Mnuchin said separately that a deal would also include direct payments to American individuals and families.

Pressure for a deal has been mounting on the White House and Congress, from the devastating effects of a coronavirus pandemic that has infected more than 7.2 million people and killed over 207,000 in the United States.

The House was expected to vote on its $2.2 trillion Democratic package, a day after initial plans for action were delayed to give more time for a deal to come together.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has not participated directly in the negotiations, said on Wednesday that the House bill’s spending total was too high.

(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Scott Malone and Chizu Nomiyama)