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U.S. Congress set for battle over next coronavirus aid bill

WASHINGTON, July 17 (Reuters) - The U.S. Congress returns to Washington on Monday with Democratic and Republican leaders agreeing that they need to pass something to salve the heavy toll of the coronavirus pandemic but $2 trillion apart on what that something should be.

In the 12 weeks since President Donald Trump signed into law the last of the $3 trillion so far committed to the crisis, COVID-19 has spread aggressively across the United States, with the number of confirmed and presumptive cases more than tripling to over 3.5 million people. There have been more than 137,000 U.S. deaths.

A politically charged response to the virus, with some officials rejecting health experts’ pleas to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, has contributed to the United States having the largest number of COVID-19 cases and deaths in the world.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who previously resisted another round of coronavirus relief, has floated the idea of a $1 trillion bill focusing largely on protecting businesses and schools from liability lawsuits as they reopen after suspending operations because of the pandemic.

The Democratic leadership of the House of Representatives is pushing a far more extensive, and expensive, response. House Democrats in May passed a $3 trillion bill that included funds for struggling state and local governments and more direct payments to families, which McConnell rejected.

While the differences are huge, McConnell said earlier this week: “I do think we’ll get there and do something that needs to be done.”

‘CRITICAL MOMENT’

Time is tight. Extended unemployment benefits for the more than 30 million Americans thrown out of work during the crisis are scheduled to end July 31 and with the Nov. 3 election looming, the two-week summer session may be lawmakers’ last chance to pass a major bill this year.

“How many times have we had to say in the course of this pandemic: ‘We’re at a critical moment?’ We really are in an even more critical moment now,” Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told a news conference this week.

Lawmakers are in for a bruising fight over an array of initiatives intended to address several of the nation’s ills, many of which have been magnified by the coronavirus pandemic.

Aid to schools, including those in impoverished neighborhoods, and other measures to stimulate a staggering economy are all in play.

On Thursday, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer unveiled a $350 billion investment plan. It includes money for minority communities to bolster childcare, healthcare, housing and training for coronavirus-related jobs such as contact tracing and administering tests.

Schumer’s initiative comes partly in response to nationwide protests across the United States this summer over police violence against Black Americans and economic disparity.

Republicans have been blocking Democrats’ call for a $1 trillion aid package to state and local governments.

Both parties appear to be ignoring Trump’s desire for a payroll tax cut. There are also arguments over continuing a small-business loan program, and Democrats want to help the poor avoid evictions from their rental homes.

Lawmakers from both sides have called for another round of direct payment checks to individuals and families.

Reporting by Richard Cowan, Susan Cornwell, Patricia Zengerle and Makini Brice; Editing by Scott Malone and Peter Cooney

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