A fight over Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s plan to subsidize private school tuition is threatening to derail a Senate GOP effort to write a slimmed-down coronavirus relief bill, people involved in the talks said this week.

The $5 billion tax credit proposal has long been championed by DeVos, and President Donald Trump has offered his support for school choice as part of his re-election campaign. Now the measure is being pushed behind the scenes by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who wants the proposal included in an emerging Senate GOP bill that aims to address economic fallout from the coronavirus.

But his move is opposed by a number of other members of the Senate Republican conference – some on the merits, others for strategic reasons. They will need to resolve the impasse to finalize the legislation. The bill is meant to be a negotiating tool with Democrats, though a previous measure with a similar goal went nowhere last month. Senate Republicans are seeking to pass a targeted bill as a way of countering a bill recently passed by House Democrats that sought to boost funding for the U.S. Postal Service.

The dispute is already creating headaches at the beginning of a four-week sprint, when lawmakers are hoping to unify behind a coronavirus relief package as well as a government spending measure. They tried, but failed, to reach agreement on a relief bill in late July and August. And if they don’t agree on a government spending package by the end of September, a partial government shutdown will begin in October.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., speaks with reporters during a visit to the Boundary Oak Distillery in Radcliff, Ky., Wednesday, Aug. 19. AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley

Top officials in both parties are already discussing stop-gap legislation that would prevent a shutdown by extending government funding at existing levels even if there’s not a coronavirus deal. Staff-level talks on such a “continuing resolution” were set to begin Friday. Republicans and the White House want the stop-gap bill to extend spending into mid-December, but Democrats have not yet made any decisions on what timeframe to support, according to two congressional aides with knowledge of the talks, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private negotiations.

As those talks begin, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., hopes to bring the separate GOP coronavirus relief legislation to the Senate floor next week, and leaders are still trying to resolve the dispute about the education policy change.

The Cruz-backed provision would use the tax code to reimburse donations to state-level scholarship funds, which help families pay for private school tuition and other educational expenses. Under the proposal, donors would get their money back in the form of a 100 percent tax credit.

DeVos says the pandemic has demonstrated the urgency of giving parents who may be frustrated with their public schools more options. Her proposal would “help families who are more vulnerable and don’t have the resources that many better-off families have had,” she told a SiriusXM host last week.

Opponents say the tax credits are thinly veiled vouchers that drain resources that should be used to support public schools, which serve the vast majority of children. Trump has proposed this idea in his last two budget proposals, but it was not adopted.

Cruz’s attempt to include the provision in the new Senate bill has emerged as a final stumbling block to completing the legislation, according to three people with knowledge of the talks, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss them.

A Cruz aide said this effort is just his latest to advance the scholarships, which he believes are needed to help families access a quality education for their children.

However, there’s scant support even among Senate Republicans for including this in the coronavirus package. Some senators oppose including this tax credit when other tax credits they favor are being left out; some say it’s too expensive; and others oppose the proposal on its merits, according to one person familiar with the talks.

Additionally, including a voucher-type plan could give Democrats an easy rationale to oppose the legislation.

None of this can pass the Senate without Democratic support, and GOP leaders don’t expect that to happen. Their goal is to show unity by offering one GOP plan, which they hope would put Democrats on the defensive. That’s why they are trying to resolve the rift over education policy.

Pressure for a coronavirus relief package is significant, with Senate Republicans facing tough reelection races eager to vote on something. Enhanced unemployment insurance and other benefits Congress agreed to in a $3 trillion burst of spring spending have expired, and millions of Americans remain out of work despite some signs of economic recovery.

McConnell failed to unite Senate Republicans behind an approximately $1 trillion bill he released in July and is now aiming for a bill around half that size. He has jettisoned some key elements from the earlier version, including a new round of $1,200 stimulus checks to individuals. The new legislation is expected to include $300 weekly enhanced unemployment benefits, a new round of funding for small businesses, money for coronavirus testing and for schools and the U.S. Postal Service, and a liability shield for businesses, health providers and others, which has been a key priority for McConnell.

The majority leader hopes to assemble support from at least 50 of his 53 members, to present a unified Senate GOP position, something that was missing in last month’s talks between White House officials and congressional Democrats. Democrats’ starting point was a $3.4 trillion bill the House passed in May, although Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has since said she’d be open to legislation costing $2.2 trillion.

Republicans say that figure is still too high, and efforts to restart talks – including a phone conversation earlier this week between Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin – have gone nowhere.

The bill McConnell is now trying to write has been hashed out in weeks of near-daily conference calls among Senate Republicans, often joined by Mnuchin and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows. McConnell is attempting to thread the needle between vulnerable incumbents desperate to vote on new relief measures and a significant bloc of fiscal conservatives who have opposed any new spending whatsoever.

In recent days, McConnell has appeared to be closing in on an agreement, getting holdouts such as Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., on board with provisions aimed at ensuring money already allocated is spent before agreeing to new funding. However, Cruz’s provision has emerged as a final barrier.

These discussions could end up colliding with separate talks about government funding.

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