COVID-19 talks hit crucial stretch

Bonnie Cash - Greg Nash

Democratic and Republican negotiators seeking an elusive deal on emergency coronavirus aid showed signs of progress Tuesday, providing a glint of fresh hope that the parties can secure some relief to rattled Americans ahead of the November election. 

They face a tough climb ahead, however, as the sides appear to remain at odds over both the size and target of the funding needed to tackle the crisis, leaving Democratic leaders eyeing consideration of their $2.2 trillion partisan backstop, perhaps as early as Wednesday.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin spoke by phone for nearly an hour Tuesday morning in hopes of breaking the long impasse — one that’s frustrated lawmakers in both parties for the past eight weeks, even as millions of people remain unemployed and thousands of small businesses teeter on the brink of collapse. Highlighting the risk of inaction, Disney announced Tuesday that it’s laying off 28,000 employees. 

Pelosi and Mnuchin agreed to speak again Wednesday. 

The renewed negotiations mark a Hail Mary effort by both leaders to iron out the stubborn differences that have blocked a deal, most notably the Democrats’ demand for almost $500 billion in help for state and local governments — funding opposed by President Trump and his Republican allies in the Capitol.

“Our conversation was a positive one,” Pelosi told MSNBC. “We’ll get back together tomorrow to see how we can find common ground and how we, again, help state and local government play the role it does. They’re our heroes.”

Pelosi and her leadership team are huddling in the Speaker’s office Tuesday night to discuss a path forward. Mnuchin, meanwhile, is expected to offer the White House’s counteroffer — something “in the zone” of $1.5 trillion — on Wednesday morning, according to Republican and Democratic lawmakers familiar with the negotiations.

That would put the sides at least $700 billion apart just two days before the House is scheduled to leave Washington for the last campaign swing toward Nov. 3. But Democrats — particularly the moderates facing tough reelection contests — are cheering the arrival of new legislation they can bring back to voters at week’s end. 

“The fact that Nancy Pelosi and the Treasury secretary are speaking is a very good sign. … I’m really hoping we are inching toward a deal here,” said Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), co-chair of the Problem Solvers Caucus that last week put forth a $1.5 trillion bipartisan relief plan that helped revive talks. “It’s essential that we go home this week helping our families, communities and our businesses. Anything short of that is unacceptable.”

“The next 24 to 48 hours are crucial. It’s game time to get a deal done for the American public,” he said.

Pelosi has made clear that an agreement with the White House is her preferred route. But if Pelosi and Mnuchin come up empty-handed this week, House Democrats are preparing to plow ahead and vote on a slimmed-down $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief package before lawmakers head for the campaign trail on Friday. 

The new package, unveiled Monday night, includes many of the priorities in the Democrats’ $3.4 trillion HEROES Act that passed the House in May, but Pelosi said the new bill covers a shorter timeline to cut costs. The new package calls for hundreds of billions of dollars for cities, states, schools and small businesses; another round of $1,200 stimulus checks; restoring $600 per week in expanded unemployment benefits; and funding for the Postal Service, census and election security.

It also includes some new priorities like $25 billion to stave off furloughs at passenger airlines slated for Oct. 1, and $120 billion for restaurants hammered by the pandemic. But it excluded a top priority of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.): liability protections for businesses, schools and other entities.

Complicating the path to a COVID-19 deal, the Senate has shifted much of its focus to the process of confirming Trump’s new Supreme Court nominee, Judge Amy Coney Barrett, before the Nov. 3 elections. And Trump is in the final phase of his reelection bid, which launches Tuesday night in Cleveland with the first of three high-stakes debates against Democratic nominee Joe Biden. Combined with the deadly wildfires rampaging through the West, those events have stolen much of the attention away from the negotiations over coronavirus relief — and much of the pressure on Senate GOP leaders to act on it. 

Still, Democrats who’ve clamored for a vote this week on a pared down bill may be set to get it. Such a vote would accomplish two things for the party: give cover to vulnerable front-line Democrats desperate to show constituents they are fighting for aid and also highlight inaction by Trump and his GOP allies.  

Pelosi and Mnuchin have been speaking daily since Sunday, including a 50-minute phone call Tuesday, one of the longest recent conversations between the top two negotiators purely focused on COVID-19 relief.

Mnuchin did not make any public remarks but other White House officials expressed cautious optimism. White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, speaking to reporters on Capitol Hill, said he had spoken to both Trump and Mnuchin about stimulus talks on Tuesday. 

“Hopefully we’ll make some progress and find a solution for the American people,” Meadows said. 

Still, there were plenty of other voices who cast doubt on a potential deal this week, pointing out that the two sides were still far apart. White House senior economic adviser Larry Kudlow panned Democrats’ $2.2 trillion offer, calling it a “very big number.”  

And in a memo to rank-and-file Republicans, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) rattled off a laundry list of complaints about the new Pelosi package, saying it allows undocumented immigrants to receive stimulus checks, provides supplemental jobless benefits for too long and fails to include crucial liability protections. He urged a “no” vote.

“This is nothing more than a messaging exercise intended to appease the far-left base by includ[ing] progressive policies that have nothing to do with the COVID-19 pandemic,” Scalise wrote. “Neither this bill nor anything like it will ever become law and Republicans should remain unified against this partisan power grab.”

One moderate House Democrat said if the White House won’t give any ground on key priorities, Democrats won’t lower their latest $2.2 trillion offer.

“Most of us feel that if it’s just a negotiation of cost, Democrats will come down a bit and a deal will come together. If there’s a Biden presidency and Democratic Senate in 2021, it can always be amplified,” the Democratic lawmaker said. “But if it’s a negotiation of priorities — unemployment insurance, state and local funding, money for elections — then we don’t see Democrats moving at all.”

Tags Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump Joe Biden Josh Gottheimer Larry Kudlow Mark Meadows Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Steve Scalise Steven Mnuchin Stimulus

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