Trump, Congress struggle for economic deal under coronavirus threat

Greg Nash

The Trump administration and House Democrats are hunting for a deal as the coronavirus sparks steep economic uncertainty, but there are few signs that they will be able to move quickly.

Pressure is growing on both President Trump and Congress to take action to try to calm the markets, and the American public, as a steady uptick in cases within the United States is feeding fears of a widespread outbreak.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin met for roughly a half-hour Tuesday afternoon, formally opening talks between the administration and Democrats about a second coronavirus bill after Congress signed off on $8.3 billion in emergency funding last week.

“We’re having discussions about various different policies. … I think there’s a lot of interest on a bipartisan basis to get something done quickly,” Mnuchin told reporters after the meeting. But underscoring the preliminary nature of the meeting, he stressed to reporters that they weren’t “negotiations.”

Pelosi told reporters that she and Mnuchin laid out their respective positions and met “to see where our common ground was as to how we go forward.”

But lawmakers are warning that they are unlikely to get a bill that could pass both chambers before the one-week recess that’s set to start Thursday, increasing the likelihood that it will be at least two weeks until lawmakers act even as the number of cases within the United States continues to climb.

And while Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) deputized Mnuchin to begin talking with Pelosi, the president still criticized ideas floated by the Speaker — raising questions about whether he will make a deal with one of his biggest political antagonists.

“We’re going to see. They came in very chopped up,” Trump told reporters after a closed-door lunch with Republicans. “A lot of them are things that she wanted to get for other things, and we’re looking at the people. We’re looking at solving this problem.”

Minutes later, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) tore into Trump, accusing him of “incompetence.”

“I’m going to be blunt. We are very worried about the president’s incompetence and lack of focus on fighting the spread of coronavirus. We believe that his lack of focus is hamstringing efforts to address this public crisis and inflicting pain on the stock market,” Schumer told reporters.

What, if anything, should be included in a second coronavirus package has sparked divisions between Trump and congressional Democrats, and even among Republicans.

Pelosi and Trump have focused on differing priorities as they’ve eyed next steps to combat the coronavirus and try to provide relief to workers and companies impacted by a potential economic downturn.

Democrats are putting together a package that would include paid sick leave and free testing, arguing that any next steps from Congress must address the virus itself.

“We can only support an initiative that puts families first,” Pelosi said.

Pelosi said that a deal with the administration needs to include Democrats’ goals.

“We have our agenda first, and that’s what we want to see. If that’s something that is agreeable to [the administration], then we’ll see what else we can do,” Pelosi said.

Pelosi said that House Democrats are readying legislation that addresses their priorities and are waiting for a sign off from legislative counsel and the Congressional Budget Office.

She stopped short of pledging that the House will be able to act before they are scheduled to leave Thursday, and there are conflicting signs in her caucus about how quickly they would move.

Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, is advocating for quick action.

“As soon as possible. … Before people leave, we want to get done,” she said. “It’s important, frankly, that the states have got the support that they need from us.”

Others maintain that the initial $8.3 billion will address the immediate coronavirus needs, largely health-related, buying lawmakers some time to assess the economic fallout — and draft their response accordingly.

“I think we ought to go through regular order,” said Rep. Ami Bera (D), a California physician. “We have some time to debate the things that would be most impactful.”

Given the lingering uncertainty, Democrats on the House Rules Committee adopted guidelines Tuesday allowing them to fast-track any legislation related to the coronavirus that might emerge over “the next several weeks,” according to committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.). That same-day authority will empower Congress to move swiftly when the second phase of relief is drafted.

“The sooner the better in my opinion,” he said. “But we just have to be flexible on the timetable.”

There are no ongoing conversations, though, between Lowey and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) — the pair at the center of Congress’s bipartisan spending deals including last week’s coronavirus package.

“Conversations are ongoing internally about a legislative package to ensure the financial security of working families affected by the coronavirus, and that has been our primary focus this week,” a House Democratic aide said.

Shelby appeared to signal that it was too early to start talking to Lowey, suggesting lawmakers needed to wait and see what, if any, next legislative steps are needed.

“I’d have to see why we need it right now. … We’ll do what we need, but let’s define need first,” Shelby said.

Senate Republicans, meanwhile, had a closed-door lunch with Trump, Vice President Pence and Mnuchin where they said they floated an “array” of ideas but few concrete details on what an ultimate deal would look like.

Ideas discussed during the lunch, according to GOP senators, include paid leave and relief for specific industries such as the cruise industry, while Sens. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) and James Lankford (R-Okla.) asked specifically about help for the shale industry. Plunging oil prices contributed to plunging stocks on Monday.

Those discussions were “very preliminary,” with no specific timeline given for when an agreement would come together, according to Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican.

“I think they view it as something they would want to move fairly quickly, once they have a proposal. … [But] ultimately you’re going to have Democratic buy-in for whatever comes out,” Thune said.

Trump used the closed-door lunch to push for a payroll tax cut, reportedly through November—an idea that divides members of the president’s own party.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), an ally of Trump’s, characterized the reaction to Trump’s idea within the closed-door lunch as “mixed.”

“I don’t know if that’s the best way to do it,” he said. “The president is pushing it.”

Mike Lillis contributed.

Tags Ami Bera Chuck Schumer Coronavirus Donald Trump James Lankford John Hoeven John Thune Lindsey Graham Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Nita Lowey Richard Shelby Steven Mnuchin

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