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Power players play chess match on COVID-19 aid

Power players play chess match on COVID-19 aid
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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 DOJ demanded metadata on 73 phone numbers and 36 email addresses, Apple says Putin says he's optimistic about working with Biden ahead of planned meeting Biden meets Queen Elizabeth for first time as president 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 McConnellWhy the Democrats need Joe Manchin Out-of-touch Democrats running scared of progressives The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Bipartisan group reaches infrastructure deal; many questions remain MORE (R-Ky.), wary of complicating efforts to seat Amy Coney BarrettAmy Coney BarrettGorsuch, Thomas join liberal justices in siding with criminal defendant Schumer faces cracks in Democratic unity Courts drowning in backlog pose lingering immigration challenge MORE on the Supreme Court, is resisting a vote on another multitrillion-dollar package before Nov. 3.

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And Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiVaccinated lawmakers no longer required to wear masks on House floor Simmering Democratic tensions show signs of boiling over Pelosi signals no further action against Omar 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 MnuchinDemocrats justified in filibustering GOP, says Schumer Yellen provides signature for paper currency Biden's name will not appear on stimulus checks, White House says 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. 

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“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 SchumerDOJ to probe Trump-era subpoenas of lawmaker records Democrats demand Barr, Sessions testify on Apple data subpoenas Out-of-touch Democrats running scared of progressives MORE (D-N.Y.), the would-be majority leader if the Senate flips.

Vulnerable Republicans, including Sens. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGOP senators applaud Biden for global vaccine donation plans Lindsey Graham: Dismissal of Wuhan lab leak theory cost Trump 2020 election Tim Scott: Could be 'very hard' to reach police reform deal by June deadline MORE (S.C.) and Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsWhy the Democrats need Joe Manchin White House briefed on bipartisan infrastructure deal but says questions remain Bipartisan Senate group announces infrastructure deal 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 DainesCompany officially nixes Keystone XL pipeline OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden ends infrastructure talks with key Republican | Colonial Pipeline CEO grilled over ransomware attack | Texas gov signs bills to improve power grid after winter storm Republicans grill Biden public lands agency pick over finances, advocacy MORE (R-Mont.), who is fending off a strong challenge from Democratic Gov. Steve BullockSteve BullockBiden 'allies' painting him into a corner Democratic Kansas City, Mo., mayor eyes Senate run Overnight Energy: Climate Summit Day 2 — Biden says US will work with other countries on climate innovation 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 MeadowsBiden's no-drama White House chief Ex-Trump aide Meadows pushed DOJ to probe multiple election theories: report Trump working with Gingrich on policy agenda: report 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 BidenPutin says he's optimistic about working with Biden ahead of planned meeting How the infrastructure bill can help close the digital divide Biden meets Queen Elizabeth for first time as president 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 BluntGOP Rep. Vicky Hartzler launches Missouri Senate bid Cryptocurrency industry lobbies Washington for 'regulatory clarity' Bipartisan group prepping infrastructure plan as White House talks lag MORE (R-Mo.).