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Top U.S. Congress aides discuss COVID-19 aid as jobless benefits expire post-Christmas

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said on Thursday that Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had agreed to resume COVID-19 relief talks as cases surge across the country, CNBC reported.

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“Last night, they’ve agreed to sit down and the staffs are going to sit down today or tomorrow to try to begin to see if we can get a real good COVID relief bill,” Schumer said during a news conference in New York, according to the news outlet.

“So there’s been a little bit of a breakthrough in that McConnell’s folks are finally sitting down and talking to us.”

Aides to McConnell and Republican House of Representatives Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy did not immediately comment.

A senior Democratic aide said there was a midafternoon meeting on Thursday of aides representing McConnell, Schumer, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and McCarthy. The aide said the group discussed coronavirus relief and efforts to pass a $1.4 trillion bill to keep government agencies operating beyond Dec. 11 when current funding expires.

President-elect Joe Biden has been pushing for quick action on a coronavirus relief bill but Republicans and Democrats in Congress have been far apart for months on the scope and cost of such a measure. Pelosi and Schumer are scheduled to meet with fellow Democrat Biden on Friday.

Economists have warned that the U.S. economy badly needs additional assistance from Washington as coronavirus cases and deaths spike. Some states and cities are imposing new controls on schools and businesses.

About 12 million people will lose unemployment benefits next month when two government-funded programs expire a day after Christmas.

On Wednesday, Biden expressed hope that Republicans in Congress would be more inclined to move forward on COVID-19 relief legislation after Republican President Donald Trump leaves office in January.

Democrats have proposed a $2.2 trillion spending package, while Senate Republicans have sought repeatedly to move a much narrower $500 billion bill, only to be blocked by Democrats, who say the legislation is inadequate.

Reporting by Richard Cowan and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Aurora Ellis and Peter Cooney

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