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Lots of Coronavirus-Relief Packages Are Floating Around the Hill. That Doesn’t Mean Help Is on the Way

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The headlines coming out of Capitol Hill this week might have you think another round of much-needed coronavirus relief is just a few details away. After months of stalemate since the last relief significant bill was passed back in March, it looks like there’s finally some momentum. Peel back the veneer just a little, however, and the reality reveals itself to be far more complicated.

Let’s go through the three options that have captured the imagination of lawmakers and advocates alike. (Even more may eventually be thrown onto the negotiating table and elements of each of these may bleed into the others, but let’s not make this too messy, at least not at first.)

ONE: A bipartisan group of Senators on Tuesday unveiled a $908 billion proposal that looked to split the difference between House Democrats’ $2.4 trillion offer and Senate Republicans’ $650 billion offer. Part of the total cost would come from some of the $500 billion in unspent money from the last round of relief, so the price tag is a little misleading. It’s a stopgap measure that has growing support from rank-and-file lawmakers who are finding it more and more difficult to justify inaction in pursuit of the perfect. This proposal would stretch through the first fiscal quarter of calendar year 2021 — or until the end of March — and would cobble together $160 billion to fund state and local governments that are running on fumes as tax revenue has dried up with the economic downturn. The measure also has more than $300 billion in loans and grants for small businesses, $25 billion in relief for renters and an extra $300 per week for unemployed Americans. It does not, however, include an extra $1,200 stimulus payment that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Donald Trump both backed. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said he was reviewing the bipartisan proposal; the White House called it a non-starter, saying it planned to work with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy on “a targeted COVID relief plan.”

TWO: Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have their own Democrats-only outline for a new offer. They haven’t released details, but it was sent over to McConnell in a private letter on Monday. The draft was meant to restart negotiations, which have been on hold for weeks. In a most unhelpful move, McConnell announced the offer’s existence and further frustrated Democrats who say Republicans aren’t negotiating in good faith. Democrats have insisted cash be included for state and local governments, a major point of dispute for many Republicans who say it’s not Washington’s problem to fix local budgets. No total cost was attached.

THREE: McConnell circulated to Republicans a new version of the GOP plan that would presumably meet with White House approval. Notably, it, too, did not include a cost, meaning it, too, was meant as a negotiating document. The latest incarnation includes small business cash, a one-month extension of base-level unemployment benefits that are set to end at the end of this month for 12 million Americans, and legal protections against lawsuits for businesses that are open during the pandemic. It notably lacks money for state and local governments. The latest also omits plussed-up unemployment benefits that had been demanded by the White House in earlier drafts.

In short, each of these is a negotiating starting point — not a workable idea. Even lawmakers who were at the table for the creation of these ideas acknowledged they’re nowhere near a final version. And when you’re talking about deals that have perhaps 12 zeros at the end, there’s a lot of wrangling left to be done.

Meanwhile, at least some officials are starting to talk again. Pelosi and Mnuchin had their first call since Election Day this week. The pair were the principal negotiators on a follow-up deal through the summer — until Trump abruptly called off negotiations via tweet in October. (He later demanded they return, but Pelosi wasn’t keen to once again be set up for failure by a mercurial President in the final throes of a campaign and decided to hold out for the election results. It turns out, her hand is now weaker as House Democrats lost seats.)

President-elect Joe Biden has been in full contact with Pelosi and Schumer. Speaking to reporters in Delaware on Tuesday, Biden said he wants Congress to act now as a first-step toward efforts he’d pick up when he takes office on Jan. 20. But he and McConnell have yet to speak since Election Day, he added. For his part, McConnell has yet to explicitly say Biden has won, although he has in round-about ways suggested he understands who will be in the White House come Jan. 21. That suggests talks aren’t really as far along as some would hope.

As if this weren’t tough enough, the U.S. government faces a do-or-die moment at the end of next week. The United States is set to run out of cash as the clock ticks past midnight on Dec. 11 and into Dec. 12. That hard deadline adds an urgency to Congress to do something; there is zero political appetite to shut down a government in the middle of a pandemic heading into the end-of-year holiday season. Some lawmakers have talked about attaching a coronavirus relief package to the must-pass spending bill. It may be a way to get some forward movement, but it also gives McConnell added leverage to limit the size of the tacked-on bill. McConnell controls the Senate floor with an iron grip and ultimately has veto power over the entire agenda in the Upper Chamber. If he says a limited pandemic-relief measure is going on the omnibus, it’s omnibus or bust for all practical purposes.

So we’re left with a string of calculations. Will progressives suck up a scaled-back relief package until they can badger Biden in the new year? Can conservatives stomach any of the red ink? And if it does pass, will Trump sign perhaps the last significant piece of legislation of his one-term presidency? The answer to each of those is, at best, a shrug emoji. Without government funding forcing a vote, there’s no guarantee McConnell would bring another round of Biden-backed relief to the floor in the new year. Conservatives will not be eager to give Biden an early win, especially if it carries cash for struggling states and cities. And Trump seemingly has yet to accept the movers are showing up at his door next month.

It’s the perfect cliffhanger for a President who spent so long as a reality show producer. Hence, why the optimism coming off Capitol Hill that a solution is in sight is perhaps misdirected.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com