This week: Clock ticks on chance for coronavirus deal

Greg Nash

Congress and the administration are quickly running out of time to strike a deal on a coronavirus relief package before the election. 

The chances of a pre-election COVID-19 relief agreement, already slim, appear increasingly unlikely as negotiations drag out between Democrats and the administration, with roughly two weeks to go until Nov. 3. 

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has set a 48-hour deadline, set to expire at the end of Tuesday, to show progress in the negotiations primarily led by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin after the two sides swapped proposals throughout the weekend. 

“The 48 only relates to if we want to get it done before the election, which we do,” she said during an ABC News interview. “I’m optimistic because, again, we’ve been back and forth on all of this.” 

Pelosi, in a subsequent letter to her caucus, outlined several areas of disagreement that still exist between Democrats and the administration, which she said made “unacceptable changes” to language from Democrats on coronavirus testing. 

“The White House has removed 55 percent of the Heroes Act’s language for testing, tracing, and treatment. Especially disappointing was the elimination of measures to address the virus’s disproportionate and deadly impact on communities of color. The White House does not appreciate the need to direct resources to culturally competent contact tracing,” Pelosi wrote.

In addition to differences over testing, Pelosi pointed to tax credits, funding for child care, more funding for state and local governments and language on the census. 

“These are a few of the issues that were discussed this weekend, but they are not exhaustive of our concerns. We are hoping to find common ground,” Pelosi added. 

Pelosi added that she was “optimistic” about the chances of an agreement before the election and that House staffers are drafting legislation, a step that would help speed up the time needed before a vote if they are able to reach a deal. 

Pelosi and Mnuchin have been negotiating for weeks as they hunt for a deal on a sweeping bill to address the lingering economic and health devastation caused by the spread of the coronavirus, which has killed roughly 220,000 Americans. 

The two sides are looking at a deal between $1.8 trillion to $2.2 trillion, though Trump has fluctuated on how high he is willing to go on the price tag for an agreement. 

The frequent conversations — limited to phone calls after a recent coronavirus outbreak in Trump’s orbit — are a U-turn from last month when the negotiations were at a standstill after they unraveled altogether in early August. 

Getting a deal before the election would provide an 11th-hour victory for Trump, who is trailing Democratic nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden in the polls. It would also give moderate House Democrats, who have become increasingly publicly vocal about wanting a deal, something to tout in the final stretch of the election. 

But there are several hurdles to getting a deal, much less getting something signed into law. 

Even as Trump is calling on negotiators to go big, Senate Republicans are pursuing a significantly smaller agreement and GOP aides are deeply skeptical that there will be a bipartisan deal before the election. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will force a vote on Wednesday on a GOP-only $500 billion relief bill, less than a third of the size of the floor of the bipartisan negotiations between Pelosi and the White House. 

“Nobody thinks this $500B+ proposal would resolve every problem forever. It would deliver huge amounts of additional help to workers and families right now while Washington keeps arguing over the rest,” McConnell said. 

The bill, according to McConnell, will include a federal unemployment benefit and more Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funding for small businesses. It would also include more than $100 billion for schools as well as money for testing, contact tracing and vaccine development and distribution.

McConnell’s decision to go small comes as his caucus has appeared growingly wary of another deal with a big price tag after Congress has appropriated roughly $3 trillion to fight the coronavirus so far this year. 

Senate Republicans initially offered a $1.1 trillion package in late July. But McConnell warned that up to 20 GOP senators would oppose it, and the bill was never brought up for a vote. 

Fifty-two GOP senators eventually lined up behind a similar $500 billion package in September, which was blocked by Democrats. 

GOP senators gave Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows an earful during a call earlier this month about their $1.8 trillion offer. 

In addition to the $500 billion package, McConnell said the Senate will vote on Tuesday on a stand-alone PPP proposal. It would also need 60 votes to ultimately pass the Senate. Republicans had previously planned to hold a stand-alone PPP vote in August but scrapped it because of caucus infighting.

Both bills are expected to fail. 

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Sunday called McConnell’s decision to force votes without a bipartisan agreement a “stunt.” 

Barrett nomination

Senate Republicans are barreling forward with Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination. 

Republicans are on track to confirm Barrett to the Supreme Court next week, locking in a 6-3 conservative majority on the court for decades in the wake of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death. 

After a four-day hearing last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee will vote on Barrett’s nomination at 1 p.m. on Thursday. 

Under the committee rules, a majority of the panel will have to be present in order to send the nomination to the floor. There are 12 GOP senators on the committee, meaning if every Republican is present they can meet that quorum requirement. Democrats are not expected to help make quorum if a GOP senator is absent. 

Two members of the minority are also supposed to be present in order to hold a vote. But Republicans can waive that rule and Graham, during last week’s business meeting, started the vote for scheduling Barrett’s nomination with only one Democratic senator present. 

Thursday’s Judiciary Committee meeting will be the panel’s first since late last week when Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) sparked fierce progressive ire, and calls for her to step down as the ranking member, after she thanked Graham for his handling of the hearings and was spotted giving him a hug. 

Republicans are confident they will have the votes necessary to confirm Barrett next week. The nomination, which has largely proceeded without surprises on Capitol Hill, will have significant implications for the country’s judiciary, with a Washington Post analysis predicting it will be the most conservative court since 1950. 

“She’ll come out of committee next Thursday … and we’ll go to the floor with her on Friday the 23rd and stay on it until we finish,” McConnell told reporters in Kentucky late last week. 

“We have the votes,” he added, when asked if Republicans would be able to confirm Barrett.

If McConnell moves to tee up Barrett’s nomination on Friday, that will allow for a final vote on her nomination by the middle of next week. 

No Democrats are expected to vote for her, but Barrett only needs 50 “yes” votes and a tie-breaker from Vice President Pence in order to be placed on the Supreme Court. 

Republicans have a 53-47 majority, meaning Barrett can lose three GOP senators. 

Only Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) has said she will vote against her because she does not believe the Senate should confirm a nominee days before the presidential election after Republicans refused to give Merrick Garland, then-President Obama’s final Supreme Court nominee, a hearing or a vote. 

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) has not said how she will vote on Barrett, but has said she does not believe a nominee should be taken up before the election.  

Tags Amy Coney Barrett Amy Coney Barrett nomination Amy Coney Barrett Supreme Court nomination Charles Schumer Coronavirus coronavirus negotiations coronavirus stimulus deal Death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg Dianne Feinstein Joe Biden Lisa Murkowski Mark Meadows Merrick Garland Mike Pence Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Ruth Bader Ginsburg Senate Judiciary Committee Steven Mnuchin Supreme Court nomination Susan Collins
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