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Sides tiptoe toward a COVID-19 deal, but breakthrough appears distant

Sides tiptoe toward a COVID-19 deal, but breakthrough appears distant
© Bonnie Cash

Party leaders racing for an elusive deal on a coronavirus stimulus package claimed more progress on Monday, but the slow, incremental headway appeared far short of the breakthrough needed to get more emergency relief to President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden says GOP senators have called to congratulate him Biden: Trump attending inauguration is 'of consequence' to the country Biden says family will avoid business conflicts MORE's desk before Election Day.

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiBiden backs 0B compromise coronavirus stimulus bill US records over 14 million coronavirus cases On The Money: COVID-19 relief picks up steam as McConnell, Pelosi hold talks | Slowing job growth raises fears of double-dip recession | Biden officially announces Brian Deese as top economic adviser MORE (D-Calif.) and Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - Dem leaders back smaller COVID-19 relief bill as pandemic escalates Sweeping financial crimes bill to hitch a ride on defense measure On The Money: Funding bill hits snag as shutdown deadline looms | Pelosi, Schumer endorse 8 billion plan as basis for stimulus talks | Poll: Most Americans support raising taxes on those making at least 0K MORE, the principal negotiators, spoke by phone for almost an hour Monday afternoon, when "they continued to narrow their differences" on policy specifics, according to Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill.

"The Speaker has tasked committee chairs to reconcile differences with their GOP counterparts on key areas," Hammill tweeted.  

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Yet Pelosi had warned a day earlier that Republican concessions on a national testing strategy, which Mnuchin had delivered Friday, gutted 55 percent of the language demanded by Democrats, including provisions designed to tackle the disproportionate harm the coronavirus has had on minorities. The net effect, Pelosi charged, would be the creation of a "slush fund" empowering the administration to withhold funding intended for coronavirus alleviation.

Pelosi has also demanded more funding and language concessions surrounding child care, worker safety, election security and tax breaks for low-income families — provisions resisted by Republicans in the Senate and the White House.

"While there was some encouraging news, much work remains," Pelosi wrote to Democrats on Sunday.

The sheer number of outstanding disagreements has lengthened the odds that the sides can forge an agreement that can pass into law before the Nov. 3 elections. Pelosi said Sunday that, in order to meet that timeline, she and Mnuchin would have to seal a deal before Wednesday — a goal she says she's still eyeing.

"The Speaker continues to hope that, by the end of the day Tuesday, we will have clarity on whether we will be able to pass a bill before the election," Hammill said.

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Pelosi and Mnuchin will speak again Tuesday, and aides to both camps will continue working "around the clock," Hamill added.

The inching progress has led Republicans to accuse Pelosi of intentionally slow-walking the talks in order to run out the clock on another burst of emergency relief, which could provide a boost to Trump's slumping reelection campaign.

Even if Pelosi and Mnuchin are able to defy the odds and win an agreement this week, there remain plenty of doubts that it could pass through the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBiden backs 0B compromise coronavirus stimulus bill US records over 14 million coronavirus cases On The Money: COVID-19 relief picks up steam as McConnell, Pelosi hold talks | Slowing job growth raises fears of double-dip recession | Biden officially announces Brian Deese as top economic adviser MORE (R-Ky.) has all but rejected the idea of moving another multitrillion-dollar relief package.

Citing deficit concerns, McConnell is planning this week to stage a vote on a much smaller bill — in the range of $500 billion — featuring unemployment insurance, direct payments to families and help for small businesses.

Trump and some of his top aides have suggested that Senate Republicans would come around to supporting a much larger package if the president leaned on them to do so. White House chief of staff Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsAlyssa Farah resigns as White House communications director Trump hits Barr over voter fraud remarks: 'He hasn't looked' Trump had tense meeting with Barr after statement DOJ found no widespread election fraud: reports MORE said Monday that McConnell has vowed to bring a bigger proposal to the floor in the event of a bipartisan deal.

"Whether there [are] enough votes to get to the 60 vote threshold, that's up to Leader McConnell," Meadows told reporters at the White House. "He has agreed that he's willing to go ahead and put forth the bill. If we have a bipartisan agreement on the bill, he'll bring it to the floor and actually have a vote."

McConnell, however, has not said publicly that such action is guaranteed. Speaking in Kentucky over the weekend, he promised the Senate would "consider" any Pelosi-Mnuchin agreement, but did not commit to a floor vote.