SPONSORED:

Power players play chess match on COVID-19 aid

Power players play chess match on COVID-19 aid
© Getty Images

A chess match has emerged over a new round of COVID-19 relief, with multiple players arguing over timing as larger political implications shadow the talks.

President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump State Department appointee arrested in connection with Capitol riot Intelligence community investigating links between lawmakers, Capitol rioters Michelle Obama slams 'partisan actions' to 'curtail access to ballot box' MORE, worried about sinking poll numbers, is urging Congress to move an enormous stimulus bill before next month’s election. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellRon Johnson grinds Senate to halt, irritating many Klain on Harris breaking tie: 'Every time she votes, we win' How to pass legislation in the Senate without eliminating the filibuster MORE (R-Ky.), wary of complicating efforts to seat Amy Coney BarrettAmy Coney BarrettBarrett authors first Supreme Court majority opinion against environmental group Justices raise bar for noncitizens to challenge removal from US after conviction Bill introduced to create RBG monument on Capitol Hill MORE on the Supreme Court, is resisting a vote on another multitrillion-dollar package before Nov. 3.

ADVERTISEMENT

And Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOvernight Defense: Capitol Police may ask National Guard to stay | Biden's Pentagon policy nominee faces criticism | Naval Academy midshipmen moved to hotels Top Republican: 'Outrageous' to extend National Guard deployment at Capitol Progressives won't oppose bill over limits on stimulus checks MORE (D-Calif.), holding out for a bill in excess of $2 trillion, is straddling the divide by engineering long-drawn talks that have pulled the White House closer to her number — and simultaneously aggravated the rift between Republican leaders less than two weeks before voters go to the polls.

The eleventh-hour chess match being orchestrated by Washington's most powerful figures — each of them facing unique pressures and driven by competing motivations — carries the highest stakes, arriving with the Senate up for grabs, the president facing increasingly grim odds of reelection, and Americans growing evermore anxious about the health and economic toll inflicted by a new burst of coronavirus cases. 

At the center of the dance are Pelosi and McConnell, both master tacticians with uncanny faculties for interpreting the political winds and utilizing leverage, however slight, to advance their parties' respective agendas.

With Trump on the ropes and eager for a deal, Pelosi has led negotiations with Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven MnuchinBiden cautious in making Trump tax returns decision Biden brings back bipartisan meetings at the White House On The Money: Schumer urges Democrats to stick together on .9T bill | Collins rules out GOP support for Biden relief plan | Powell fights inflation fears MORE in search of a compromise between the parties' $1.9 trillion and $2.2 trillion proposals. Both figures are opposed by McConnell and most GOP lawmakers, citing skyrocketing deficits. And Pelosi has leaned heavily on Trump's appeals for Congress to “go big” before the election as well as his claim that he'll convince reluctant Republicans to back an eventual agreement.

“I wouldn't even be having these discussions if we didn't think the president had some sway as to whether the Senate would take this legislation up,” Pelosi told MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell on Wednesday,

Yet Pelosi is facing pressures of her own. Moderate Democrats in her caucus want an immediate deal, even if it means accepting the Republicans’ lower number, while others are loath to give Trump a major victory before the election. With that in mind, GOP leaders are accusing the Speaker of moving the goal posts and running out the clock to deny Trump that win — a charge she has fervently denied. 

ADVERTISEMENT

“He's not that important that we would ... avoid an opportunity to help workers just because he would have collateral benefit,” she told Bloomberg TV on Tuesday. 

Pelosi and Mnuchin spoke again for almost an hour on Wednesday afternoon, with the sides “closer to being able to put pen to paper to write legislation,” according to Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill. They are expected to speak again on Thursday.

McConnell’s position is even more precarious. With the Senate in the balance, he’s been warning Republicans on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue that striking a deal with Pelosi at this critical juncture could jeopardize their top priority before Election Day: confirming Trump’s Supreme Court nominee.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to report Barrett's nomination to the full Senate on Thursday. McConnell has said the Senate will vote to confirm her on Monday, which would hand Trump and Senate Republicans a major victory and morale boost just a week before voters head to the polls. That late surge of momentum could be just enough for McConnell and his team to preserve their fragile Senate majority. 

But while there’s virtually nothing that can stop McConnell from seating Barrett on the high court, a bipartisan stimulus deal around the same time could take the national spotlight away from the GOP’s Supreme Court triumph and refocus it squarely on divisions between Trump and his GOP allies in the Senate in the run-up to the election.

There’s been little appetite among Senate Republicans, especially fiscal conservatives, for a “big, beautiful stimulus” like the one Trump has called for. They tried to pass a targeted $500 billion package on Wednesday but were blocked by Democrats, highlighting the close alliance between Pelosi and Sen. Charles SchumerChuck SchumerRon Johnson forces reading of 628-page Senate coronavirus relief bill on floor Senate panel splits along party lines on Becerra House Democrats' ambitious agenda set to run into Senate blockade MORE (D-N.Y.), the would-be majority leader if the Senate flips.

Vulnerable Republicans, including Sens. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamRon Johnson grinds Senate to halt, irritating many Here's who Biden is now considering for budget chief House Democratic leaders back Shalanda Young for OMB after Tanden withdrawal MORE (S.C.) and Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsMurkowski votes with Senate panel to advance Haaland nomination OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Interior reverses Trump policy that it says restricted science | Collins to back Haaland's Interior nomination | Republicans press Biden environment nominee on Obama-era policy Republicans, please save your party MORE (Maine), have said they would support a trillion-dollar-plus relief package. But other endangered Republicans — including those from states where COVID-19 rates are climbing — are wary of such a big-dollar package.

“I support another package. What I don’t support is having Montana taxpayers responsible for what’s happened in places like California and New York that are not COVID related,” said Sen. Steve DainesSteven (Steve) David DainesSusan Collins to back Haaland's Interior nomination OVERNIGHT ENERGY: House Democrats reintroduce road map to carbon neutrality by 2050 | Kerry presses oil companies to tackle climate change | Biden delays transfer of sacred lands for copper mine Indigenous groups post billboards urging senators to confirm Deb Haaland MORE (R-Mont.), who is fending off a strong challenge from Democratic Gov. Steve BullockSteve BullockOvernight Health Care: CDC calls for schools to reopen with precautions | Cuomo faces rising scrutiny over COVID-19 nursing home deaths | Biden officials move to begin rescinding Medicaid work requirements Montana governor lifts state mask mandate Lobbying world MORE

“The Montana taxpayer should not be bailing out those states. That’s a big bone of contention that separates the two sides,” Daines added.

The wild card in the debate remains Trump, who has changed tunes repeatedly throughout the month. While first urging a massive infusion of new stimulus, he later ended the talks — and then called for a smaller piecemeal approach — before returning full circle to support a package even larger than Democrats have proposed. 

The message has trickled down to Trump’s lieutenants, who have pressed Senate Republicans to get behind whatever agreement might emerge between Pelosi and Mnuchin. 

“The quicker we can make a deal the better off it is for all Americans,” White House chief of staff Mark MeadowsMark MeadowsHow scientists saved Trump's FDA from politics Liberals howl after Democrats cave on witnesses Kinzinger calls for people with info on Trump to come forward MORE told reporters Wednesday in the Capitol, where he huddled with Republicans.

While Pelosi says she’d prefer to vote on new stimulus before Nov. 3, she’s also vowing to act quickly in the lame-duck session if the shrinking calendar — or Senate opposition — prevents it. 

“There will be a bill. It's a question of, is it in time to pay the November rent, which is my goal? Or is is going to be shortly thereafter and retroactive?” Pelosi told MSNBC.

That strategy carries risks, however, particularly if Trump falls to Democratic presidential nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump State Department appointee arrested in connection with Capitol riot FireEye finds evidence Chinese hackers exploited Microsoft email app flaw since January Biden officials to travel to border amid influx of young migrants MORE and loses interest in cutting deals as a lame-duck president. Some lawmakers in both parties are already warning of that very thing. 

“If we’re gonna do it this year, I think it’s now or never,” said Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntTop Republican: 'Outrageous' to extend National Guard deployment at Capitol Five takeaways from dramatic Capitol security hearing Biden convenes bipartisan meeting on cancer research MORE (R-Mo.).