Bad blood between Pelosi, Meadows complicates coronavirus talks

As the parties scramble for an elusive deal on another round of coronavirus relief, mistrust and bad blood between two of the principal negotiators — Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows — have snarled the talks and complicated the path to a timely agreement.

The tensions were on full display Thursday after a 25-minute phone call between the two power brokers — the first talks between the sides in roughly three weeks — failed to break the long impasse. 

Meadows, Pelosi charged afterward, displayed a “disregard” for the needs of suffering Americans by rejecting more emergency funding.

Pelosi, Meadows countered, offered “25 minutes of nothing.”

The sharp back-and-forth was partly theatrics, as the parties seek to energize their base voters less than 10 weeks from the high-stakes Nov. 3 elections. But it also highlighted the stark ideological differences between the sides when it comes to the government’s role in responding to the public health and economic crises sparked by the coronavirus pandemic — differences all but epitomized in the figures of Pelosi and Meadows. 

Meadows, a former North Carolina congressman and House Freedom Caucus chairman, is well known for his clashes with leaders of his own party, triggering government shutdowns and even forcing a GOP Speaker, John Boehner (Ohio), into an early retirement. He also proved to be a sharp thorn in the side of the two Republicans who followed Boehner — then-Speaker Paul Ryan (Wis.) and current House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) — while going largely ignored in Democratic circles.

“Very few Dems dealt with him,” a former Democratic leadership aide said Friday in an email. “They just saw him as a bomb thrower with no responsibility.”

That changed dramatically this year when Meadows ascended to chief of staff and assumed a leading part in the negotiations over a fifth round of emergency coronavirus aid. Even in the new role, Meadows’s hard-line approach to government spending has left lawmakers of both parties questioning his ability — and his interest — in cutting a multitrillion-dollar deal. 

Pelosi is among the chief skeptics. She had famously offered to bail out Boehner by providing votes to reopen the government amid an extended, Meadows-induced shutdown in 2013. (Boehner declined.) And most in her caucus appear to share that distrust. 

“Most Members (Dem) believe Meadows is the problem,” the aide said. “He spent all his time in the House fighting these types of deals and never liking CR’s [continuing resolutions]. Back then it was okay cause he didn’t have to lead or be responsible.

“I think he is struggling with his new role.”

Aides emphasize that there’s no close history or personal relationship between Pelosi and Meadows. In fact, their chief commonality may be their shared affection for the late, beloved House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.). 

But their wildly divergent political philosophies, particularly when it comes to the role of the federal government in the everyday lives of people, have collided at a crucial moment as they joust over the next round of emergency coronavirus aid. With the sides still almost $1 trillion apart, the rhetoric accompanying the debate is heating up. 

Indeed, as the partisan impasse has stretched beyond a month, Pelosi’s disdain for her former House colleague is spilling out, as she increasingly bashes “whatever-his-name-is” and “what’s-the-name” with accusations that he’s threatening both the public health and economic well-being of working class Americans. In a novel dig on Thursday, she demoted Meadows — a member of Trump’s Cabinet with an office adjoining the president’s — to the rank of aide to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, whom she referred to as the principal White House negotiator for the Republicans.

“Meadows there is staffing Mr. Mnuchin,” Pelosi said.

Meadows, for his part, has poked back. Earlier in the month, while he was visiting the Capitol to meet with other lawmakers, he popped into Pelosi’s office — unannounced — to request a meeting over the stimulus bill. The highly unusual tactic didn’t work — Pelosi refused to see him — but that only empowered Meadows to address the press afterward with accusations that Democrats were stonewalling any progress on a deal. 

“If she wants to strike a deal with the president of the United States on behalf of the American people, the president is willing to do that,” he said after the stunt

While the pair of negotiators are two of the most powerful figures in Washington today, they could not be more different. Pelosi, 80, a member of a Baltimore political dynasty, came up through the Democratic political machine and won her current seat 33 years ago representing liberal San Francisco. She played the inside game on Capitol Hill, holding influential committee slots and steadily rising through the leadership ranks to become the first female Speaker in history in 2007.    

Until the Trump era, Meadows, 61, had always been a political outsider excluded from the room where deals were being hashed out. The Tea Party insurgent, known for his Southern charm and coziness with reporters, first won election to his far western North Carolina House seat in 2012, but he exerted his power — and made a name for himself on the Hill — by attacking his own party leaders, derailing big bipartisan negotiations and finding his way regularly into print media and broadcast news.

To be sure, there are other factors preventing the sides from reaching an agreement on another emergency spending bill. Both parties had their conventions in recent weeks, shifting the national gaze away from the COVID-19 talks for a good part of the month. 

Additionally, the last monthly jobs report did not reflect the expiration of several major initiatives of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, including generous unemployment subsidies and help for struggling small businesses, leaving the specific effects on the economy unknown until early September. 

The stunning rise of the stock market — which is on a historic tear since its steep drop at the outset of the pandemic-induced shutdown in March — has also acted to temper the sense of urgency on Capitol Hill, easing the pressure on GOP leaders to rush ahead with another bill. 

Still, Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) had found success negotiating emergency spending deals with Mnuchin through the early months of the crisis. With that in mind, Democrats of all stripes view Meadows as the driving force behind the current stalemate. 

“Closing deals is not Mark Meadows’s strong suit. His whole track record is: blow it up,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who served with Meadows on the House Oversight and Reform Committee and has teamed up with him on good-government legislation. “There is this other side of Mark, but his track record here on the Freedom Caucus, on the Boehner vacating the seat effort, on government shutdowns are not his strong suits.”

“If you ask yourself what’s the difference between April and May, when we did reach big, broad bipartisan consensus, and today,” he added, “the variable is Mark Meadows.”

Tags Boehner Charles Schumer Coronavirus COVID-19 Elijah Cummings Gerry Connolly John Boehner Kevin McCarthy Mark Meadows Nancy Pelosi Paul Ryan ppp Steven Mnuchin Stimulus Unemployment

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