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White House, Democrats face Senate Republican opposition on coronavirus aid

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House and congressional Democrats kept up negotiations on Wednesday on a fresh coronavirus relief bill, though their effort faced opposition in the Republican-controlled Senate, where conservatives object to the trillion-dollar-plus price tag.

After quickly passing more than $3 trillion in relief early this year, aimed at salving the heavy human and economic toll of the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress has failed to pass any new measures since April to respond to a disease that has killed more than 221,000 Americans.

President Donald Trump, trailing in national opinion polls ahead of Election Day on Nov. 3, has increasingly called for action, but proposals for comprehensive relief have met resistance from Senate Republicans.

Democratic House of Representative Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Trump’s lead negotiator, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, are hammering out the details of a relief package that could be in the range of $2.2 trillion, the number Democrats have been pushing for months.

But Senate Majority Leader McConnell does not want to bring a large coronavirus aid bill to the Senate floor before the election, a senior Republican aide said, as he focuses on trying to confirm Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett.

The White House insists that a bipartisan agreement between Pelosi and Mnuchin would find enough votes for passage in the Senate, where Republicans hold a 53-47 majority.

“I believe there would be enough votes there to make sure that we get that across the finish line and to the president’s desk. Again, the focus on Senate Republicans right now, whether the votes would be there or not, is misplaced,” White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows told reporters.

But there were no signs that those lawmakers would go along with anything near the $2 trillion mark.

Senate Republicans, expressing concern about the impact a large spending measure would have on an already ballooning federal deficit, have proposed smaller, targeted aid to help an economy reeling from the pandemic that has infected 8.3 million Americans.

With opinion polls showing voters faulting Trump for his handling of the pandemic, Republicans are also facing a risk of losing their Senate majority. That has some members reverting to traditional Republican concerns about fiscal discipline.

The Senate on Wednesday is scheduled to vote on a $500 billion Republican aid plan that Democrats have already rejected and were expected to again.

McConnell is also moving to get Supreme Court nominee Barrett confirmed by the full Senate next week, an action that Republicans believe would aid vulnerable party incumbents. The Washington Post reported that McConnell told Republicans a deal on a package now could threaten that plan.

Meanwhile, renewed direct payments to households and expanded unemployment insurance were among the provisions being discussed between Pelosi and Mnuchin.

(This story corrects second paragraph to show last measure passed in April, not March)

Reporting by Richard Cowan; additional reporting by Doina Chiacu and Susan Heavey; Editing by Scott Malone, Sonya Hepinstall and Jonathan Oatis

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