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Power players play chess match on COVID-19 aid

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 Trump, worried about sinking poll numbers, is urging Congress to move an enormous stimulus bill before next month’s election. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), wary of complicating efforts to seat Amy Coney Barrett on the Supreme Court, is resisting a vote on another multitrillion-dollar package before Nov. 3.

And Speaker Nancy Pelosi (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 Mnuchin 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. 

“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 Schumer (D-N.Y.), the would-be majority leader if the Senate flips.

Vulnerable Republicans, including Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Susan Collins (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 Daines (R-Mont.), who is fending off a strong challenge from Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock. 

“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 Meadows 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 Biden 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 Blunt (R-Mo.). 

Tags Amy Coney Barrett Charles Schumer Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump Joe Biden Lindsey Graham Mark Meadows Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Roy Blunt Steve Bullock Steve Daines Steven Mnuchin Stimulus Susan Collins
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