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Progress, but no breakthrough, on coronavirus relief

Progress, but no breakthrough, on coronavirus relief
© Greg Nash

After months of slow-moving talks on another round of coronavirus relief, the top negotiators on Tuesday appeared to be where they’ve been for weeks: making some progress but without a major breakthrough to report. 

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiGovernors take heat for violating their own coronavirus restrictions Spending deal clears obstacle in shutdown fight Ocasio-Cortez, Cruz trade jabs over COVID-19 relief: People 'going hungry as you tweet from' vacation MORE (D-Calif.) had indicated over the weekend that Tuesday would be a make-or-break moment for the fate of the legislation, the day to decide if the sides were close enough to a stimulus deal to enact it before Election Day. 

Yet after a 45-minute phone call with the top White House negotiator, Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinBiden's Treasury pick will have lengthy to-do list on taxes On The Money: Initial jobless claims rise for 2nd week | Dow dips below 30K | Mnuchin draws fire for COVID-19 relief move | Manhattan DA appeals dismissal of Manafort charges Mnuchin to put 5B in COVID-19 relief funds beyond successor's reach MORE, Pelosi’s office signaled that while the parties are “closer to an agreement,” there remain key differences requiring another transfer of proposals — and more time consumed as Nov. 3 quickly approaches. The pair is scheduled to talk again on Wednesday. 

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“Today’s deadline enabled the Speaker and Secretary to see that decisions could be reached and language could be exchanged, demonstrating that both sides are serious about finding a compromise,” Drew Hammill, Pelosi’s spokesman, tweeted.

Both sides are facing pressure to solidify an agreement before the elections, as the number of coronavirus cases rises and the summer’s economic recovery shows signs of tapering off. President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden adds to vote margin over Trump after Milwaukee County recount Krebs says allegations of foreign interference in 2020 election 'farcical'  Republicans ready to become deficit hawks again under a President Biden MORE, trailing in the polls, has urged another massive stimulus bill before Nov. 3, and Pelosi is facing her own calls for a deal from moderates in her caucus.  

Yet the Speaker said that to meet that deadline, the House would have to draft the legislation by the end of the week — a heavy lift considering that she and Mnuchin have yet to agree on the contours of the package. Still, Pelosi said she’s “optimistic” about the chances. 

“It isn't that this day was a day that we would have a deal. It was a day where we would have our terms on the table, to be able to go to the next step,” she said in an interview with BloombergTV, shortly before her conversation with Mnuchin. 

She added a cautionary note: “Legislation takes a long time.”

Across the Capitol, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBiden's climate plans can cut emissions and also be good politics Acting Defense secretary makes surprise trip to Somalia As Biden administration ramps up, Trump legal effort drags on MORE (R-Ky.) was doing his part to pump the brakes on any big bipartisan deal. Publicly, he told reporters Tuesday that he would bring a $1.8 trillion stimulus deal to the Senate floor if one could pass the House — a reversal from a week earlier. 

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But during a closed-door lunch that same day, McConnell privately told GOP senators that he had warned the White House not to cut a deal with Pelosi right before the election because it could disrupt the Senate’s plan to confirm Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney BarrettAmy Coney BarrettCardinal Dolan hails Supreme Court decision on churches, COVID-19 Cuomo blames new conservative majority for high court's COVID-19 decision Supreme Court blocks New York coronavirus restrictions on houses of worship MORE, The Washington Post reported.

Even if a potential deal could clear the House and make it to the Senate floor, there is no guarantee it would pass the upper chamber and get to Trump’s desk.

Senate Majority Whip John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneRepublicans ready to become deficit hawks again under a President Biden Democrats brush off calls for Biden to play hardball on Cabinet picks Overnight Defense: Pentagon set for tighter virus restrictions as top officials tests positive | Military sees 11th COVID-19 death | House Democrats back Senate language on Confederate base names MORE (R-S.D.), McConnell’s top deputy, told reporters this week he didn’t know if there were 13 Republicans who would vote for a $1.8 trillion package demanded by Trump. That’s the magic number needed to overcome a filibuster if all 47 Democrats voted "yes."

“It would be hard,” Thune said.

Greasing the skids for an agreement, both sides in recent days have made concessions to the other. Mnuchin has largely accepted the Democrats’ demands for a national testing strategy, Pelosi said, including efforts to eliminate the virus’s disproportionate harm on minority communities. 

“I do think we have a shared value — not many — but a shared value that finally they want to crush the virus,” she told BloombergTV. “They've come a long way on that, I have to admit.”

The White House has also agreed to Democrats' insistence on stronger protections for workers under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Pelosi, meanwhile, suggested Tuesday that she's willing to cede Democrats' demands for language related to election security and propping up the U.S. census, the government’s decennial demographic survey which Trump has sought to curtail.

“It's so unconstitutional,” she said of Trump's census approach. “But again, we may have to live to fight another day on that.”

Still, stubborn differences appear to remain, and Pelosi singled out two in particular: more funding for state and local governments, sought by Democrats; and liability language, demanded by Republicans, to protect businesses and schools from lawsuits in the event that workers and students contract the virus. 

McConnell and Senate Republicans are set this week to vote on a smaller relief package, in the range of $500 billion, that features new funding for unemployment benefits, small businesses, testing and schools, as well as broad liability protections.

Pelosi on Tuesday rejected McConnell's liability language outright, saying it extends far beyond the current pandemic. “He's doing tort reform while we're trying to do safety in the workplace,” she said.

But the Speaker also suggested there's room for compromise with Mnuchin on the liability provision, if the right worker protections are included in the package. 

“I do believe that if someone is honoring the OSHA provisions, having good working standards and the rest, that could be an admissible defense should someone bring a case against them,” she said. “There's a balance that can be struck, but it isn't the McConnell language."

The developments came as the country enters a crucial phase in the fight against the pandemic — and both parties are facing increasing pressure to move quickly on another round of emergency relief. Already this month, coronavirus cases are spiking across the country, hitting numbers not seen since the last peak in July, while infectious diseases experts — including those in Trump’s administration — are warning of a bleak winter as people move indoors and the flu season arrives.

Meanwhile, the number of unemployment claims, after falling precipitously over the summer, is gradually ticking back up, hitting almost 900,000 in the second week of October alone. Economists, including Jerome Powell of the Federal Reserve, have warned that without another infusion of federal stimulus, the recovery will be long and painful, particularly for low- and middle-income workers and families. 

Trump, meanwhile, has repeatedly confused the negotiations with a string of mixed messages, fluctuating from calls to end the talks to appeals for Republicans to go even higher than the $2.2 trillion Pelosi has demanded. The president has also said he’ll convince reluctant Republican senators to back the higher figure. 

“It’s very simple. I want to do it even bigger than the Democrats,” Trump told "Fox & Friends” on Tuesday. “Now, not every Republican agrees with me, but they will.” 

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Pelosi is facing some heat of her own from several competing camps. Some moderate Democrats have pressed the Speaker to cut a deal with the White House before the elections, while other voices have warned that an agreement before Nov. 3 would only help Trump’s campaign. 

Pelosi on Tuesday dismissed the latter argument, saying Congress has a responsibility to help those struggling through the crisis, regardless of political considerations. 

“He's not that important that we would ... avoid an opportunity to help workers just because he would have collateral benefit,” Pelosi said of Trump.