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Trump fuels and frustrates COVID-19 relief talks

Washington is waiting for President TrumpDonald John TrumpHillary Clinton responds to Chrissy Teigen tweet: 'I love you back' Police called after Florida moms refuse to wear face masks at school board meeting about mask policy Supreme Court rejects Trump effort to shorten North Carolina mail-ballot deadline MORE to make up his mind on coronavirus relief.

In just the past week, the president has shifted from chief cheerleader for a massive deal to principal pessimist undermining any such agreement — only to reverse course yet again on Friday in urging the top negotiators to “go big” in securing a package he can sign before the elections. 

“I would like to see a bigger stimulus package, frankly, than either the Democrats or the Republicans are offering,” he said in a two-hour interview with conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh.

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The stunning 360-degree turn has given rise to new hopes that, after weeks of stalled talks, the White House and Democrats can unite to pass emergency relief in the range of $2 trillion to help states, families and businesses being crushed under the weight of a pandemic that’s already killed more than 210,000 people in America and left millions more unemployed.

Yet Trump’s message is not only at odds with statements he made just days ago, but also contradicts those from Senate Republicans and some of his own White House aides, who are warning that any new spending package would have to come in lower than the Democrats’ $2.2 trillion proposal — and certainly won’t be higher, as Trump pitched to Limbaugh. 

“We are willing and eager to make a deal and we’re willing to come up on the levels that we’re giving in terms of direct payments to the American people, potentially PPP loans, as well as airline aid,” White House communications director Alyssa Farah told reporters Friday afternoon, referring to the Paycheck Protection Program, which provides loans to small businesses. “We want to keep that number below $2 trillion.”

It’s not unusual for Trump to play a wildcard role in Washington policy debates, but his hot-and-cold approach to the stimulus negotiations has confused all sides. 

Trump is hoping to restore an image of strength and dealmaking prowess, after spending three days in the hospital being treated for COVID-19, providing clear motivation to secure a big victory ahead of the election. But top Republicans in both chambers have been cool to the idea of piling trillions of dollars more onto the federal debt, and they’re busy tamping down expectations that an enormous new spending package is possible less than four weeks from Nov. 3. Their comments have raised questions about whether Congress can pass such a bill even if a deal with the White House is struck.  

“The murkiness is a result of the proximity to the election, and everybody kind of trying to elbow for political advantage,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMcConnell: Battle for Senate 'a 50-50 proposition' 'Packing' federal courts is already a serious problem What a Biden administration should look like MORE (R-Ky.) said Friday from Kentucky. “I'd like to see us rise above that ... but I think that's unlikely in the next three weeks.”

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Another factor likely driving Senate Republicans is this: Trump is down in the national polls — trailing Democratic nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenHillary Clinton responds to Chrissy Teigen tweet: 'I love you back' Supreme Court rejects Trump effort to shorten North Carolina mail-ballot deadline Overnight Defense: Trump campaign's use of military helicopter raises ethics concerns | Air Force jets intercept aircraft over Trump rally | Senators introduce bill to expand visa screenings MORE by double digits, according to some new surveys — and GOP operatives appear increasingly willing to buck his demands as the days tick closer to the elections.

“I got the sense from them that there’s a ‘let’s cut him loose' [attitude],” a former Democratic aide now working in a bipartisan consulting shop said in an email. “I strongly believe that if Pelosi and Munchin cut a deal it may not get the Senate [support]. Weird, but it’s the first time that [Trump’s] lap dogs may be getting some backbone or better yet self-preservation when they see him tanking.”

Amid the turmoil, negotiations have continued. Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPelosi: Trump should accept election results 'like a man' The spectre of pension failures haunts this election Microsoft: Iranian hacking group targeting attendees of major international security conferences MORE (D-Calif.) and Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinMcConnell and Schumer's relationship shredded after court brawl On The Money: Trump says stimulus deal will happen after election | Holiday spending estimates lowest in four years | Domestic workers saw jobs, hours plummet due to COVID Trump says stimulus deal will happen after election MORE held a 30-minute phone call Friday afternoon on which the Treasury secretary offered a $1.8 trillion package, up from $1.6 trillion a week ago. From Democrats’ perspective, that was a step in the right direction and a sign that Trump is extremely eager to cut a deal this month.

But Pelosi has continued to insist on a $2.2 trillion package like the one House Democrats passed last week, and there was no indication from the Speaker on Friday that she was prepared to accept the White House’s counteroffer. The Friday phone call was shorter than previous calls between the two negotiators, and a top Pelosi aide said Democrats were still waiting for the administration to address specific concerns, including assurances that funding allocated for testing is actually spent on that purpose.

“Today, the secretary returned to the table with a proposal that attempted to address some of the concerns Democrats have,” said Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill. “Of special concern, is the absence of an agreement on a strategic plan to crush the virus. For this and other provisions, we are still awaiting language from the administration as negotiations on the overall funding amount continue.”

In addition to his own plummeting polls, Trump is feeling growing pressure from moderate House and Senate Republicans facing tough reelection bids. Rep. John KatkoJohn Michael KatkoWarren, Porter to headline progressive fundraiser supporting seven swing state candidates Trump fuels and frustrates COVID-19 relief talks Trump says talks on COVID-19 aid are now 'working out' MORE (R-N.Y.), whose race top election handicappers moved into the “toss up” column this week, told Trump on Twitter to “rethink his move” after the president walked away from talks earlier in the week.

And Sen. Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstPence seeks to lift GOP in battle for Senate Greenfield sidelined in Iowa after staffers come in contact with person who tested positive for coronavirus Trump looks to shore up support in Nebraska MORE (R-Iowa), who’s trailing Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield in the polls, personally pleaded with Trump on Friday to get a deal done on a relief package. 

“Spoke to @POTUS and relayed to him what I’ve heard from folks across the state: Iowans need additional COVID-19 relief,” Ernst tweeted. “I’m hopeful Congress can come together once again — Rs and Ds — and provide more support to hardworking Americans.” 

In its $1.8 trillion offer, the White House made new concessions to Pelosi and the Democrats. The proposal includes $300 billion in emergency aid for cities and states, up from a $250 billion offer last week (though still well below the Democrats’ $436 billion ask). The White House is also throwing in more money for airlines, restaurants, small businesses, unemployment insurance, food stamps and additional food aid for low-income women and children, according to a GOP source familiar with the offer.

Republicans are also offering direct payments of $1,000 per child — up from their initial $500 offer — in addition to the $1,200 stimulus checks for individuals, to give immediate relief to families rather than rely on future tax credits outlined in Pelosi’s plan.  

“I don’t know what there is to say no to,” the GOP source said.

Pelosi, for her part, has not weighed in directly on the Republicans’ new offer. And it’s unclear that, with Trump on the ropes, she’s ready to come down from her firm demand of $2.2 trillion.

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“You know the devil and the angels are in the details,” Pelosi told MSNBC shortly before her conversation with Mnuchin. “So, part of it is about money and part of it is about policy.”

Still, the recent movement has heartened those lawmakers pushing most loudly for a pre-election agreement. The two leaders of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, Reps. Tom ReedThomas (Tom) W. ReedAn investment in R&D is an investment in America's future Pelosi and Trump go a full year without speaking Trump fuels and frustrates COVID-19 relief talks MORE (R-N.Y.) and Josh GottheimerJoshua (Josh) GottheimerTrump fuels and frustrates COVID-19 relief talks Trump's illness sparks new urgency for COVID-19 deal House approves .2T COVID-19 relief bill as White House talks stall MORE (D-N.J.), cheered what they called a big “breakthrough” even as many of their colleagues expressed skepticism at the day’s developments.

“Now that the negotiators are back at the table, let’s get a bipartisan deal across the finish line. We must not quit on the American people,” they said in a joint statement. “We are in the middle of a health and economic crisis, and there is simply far too much on the line — from our families, small businesses and jobs, to our health and safety, schools, and communities.”

Morgan Chalfant contributed.