‘One more serious try’ on COVID-19 relief yields progress but no deal

The lead negotiators haggling for another round of emergency coronavirus relief met in person Wednesday for the first time in weeks, with both sides citing headway in the search for an elusive compromise — but no deal to report.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin huddled for roughly 90 minutes in the Speaker’s office in the Capitol, emerging with hopes that an evasive bipartisan agreement is within their grasp.

“We’re gonna go back and do a little more work again,” Mnuchin said. “I think we’ve made a lot of progress in a lot of areas.”

Pelosi offered a similar assessment, pointing to unspecified issues where the sides “are seeking further clarification.”

“Our conversation will continue,” she said in a statement.

Before the meeting, Mnuchin told CNBC, “We’re going to give it one more serious try to get this done, and I think we’re hopeful that we can get something done.”

The surprise meeting marked the first time the pair had met face-to-face since Aug. 7, when the talks over another massive round of coronavirus aid hit a brick wall over differences in both the size of the package and specific spending goals within it.

Democrats had offered a $2.2 trillion proposal, while Republicans countered with roughly $1.1 trillion. When neither side budged, the negotiations dissolved and remained stalled for almost two months.

The resumption of talks comes as both parties are facing increasing pressure to set aside their differences and secure an agreement to help struggling families, industries and small businesses left devastated by the global pandemic.

The United States passed a grim milestone last week when the number of domestic coronavirus deaths topped 200,000. Millions of workers remain unemployed, thousands of businesses are at risk of shuttering and countless schools are struggling to reopen safely this fall.

Adding to the urgency are the Nov. 3 elections. Moderate Democrats, in particular, have been loath to leave Washington and face constituents without another vote on emergency stimulus to tote with them. Pelosi, initially reluctant, finally relented last week, scheduling a vote on a $2.2 trillion aid package that’s scheduled to hit the floor Thursday.

The package features almost $500 billion for state and local governments; a renewal of $600 weekly payments for unemployment benefits; another round of $1,200 checks for individuals; $75 billion for coronavirus testing; and billions of dollars more for schools, the Postal Service, food stamps, rental assistance and election security. It also contains emergency bailout funds for two industries hit hardest by the pandemic: airlines and restaurants.

Republicans have rejected the Democratic package outright, saying it’s too generous and includes provisions unrelated to the pandemic at hand. The funding for state and local governments has emerged as a particularly thorny issue, with President Trump and other GOP leaders accusing Democratic-led states of seeking a bailout for poor budget decisions made before the coronavirus crisis. Another major sticking point is liability protections for businesses, schools and other entities that are not part of the Democratic measure.

Top Democrats emphasized that Thursday’s vote on the $2.2 trillion package will not put an end to the bipartisan talks. In the meantime, however, Democratic leaders have given assurances to moderates that they won’t be going back to their districts to campaign having done nothing new to address the crisis.

“Many of us hope tonight’s vote is just the appetizer as we await a bipartisan main course tomorrow or Friday,” said freshman Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), a member of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus who said he’s more optimistic about a COVID-19 deal than he’s been in recent months.

The White House, meanwhile, has its own reasons for seeking an eleventh-hour deal before the elections. Trump is lagging in the polls and scrambling to shift the national focus away from his Tuesday debate with Democratic nominee Joe Biden — a performance that’s been widely panned by even some of the president’s most loyal allies.

But Democrats pointed to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) as the wild card in any potential deal. After huddling with Pelosi, Mnuchin walked across the Capitol to update the GOP leader on the negotiations. Speaking to reporters, McConnell poured cold water on the idea of a COVID-19 package passing Congress before the election, citing what he characterized as significant differences between House Democrats and Senate Republicans. 

“We would like to see another rescue package,” McConnell said, but dismissed Pelosi’s latest proposal as “another massive measure that includes such things as health care for illegal immigrants, tax cuts for rich people in New York and California and other things that are totally unrelated to the coronavirus. 

“So I think it’s safe to say we’re far apart. I think Secretary Mnuchin and the Speaker are continuing to speak but we’re very, very far apart,” the Republican leader said.

Still, many in the Capitol saw Wednesday’s lengthy in-person meeting between the top two negotiators as a sign that they were on the cusp of a major breakthrough.

“Oh yeah, I think we’re gonna get a deal,” Financial Services Chairwoman Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), a close Pelosi ally, said while leaving the Speaker’s office.

Democratic lawmakers described phone calls they’ve been receiving from constituents, some of them in tears, describing how they can’t buy food, pay their rent or mortgage, or keep their businesses open.

“All these things we’ve been talking about are just becoming clearer every single day — more deaths, more layoffs, more people homeless,” Progressive Caucus Co-Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) told The Hill. “The question is ultimately going to become: Do Republicans understand what is happening to people across this country?”

Alexander Bolton contributed.

Tags coronavirus relief COVID-19 Dean Phillips Donald Trump Joe Biden Liability protection Maxine Waters Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Pandemic Pramila Jayapal Steven Mnuchin stimulus checks Unemployment benefits
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