Senate

Negotiators hit gas on coronavirus talks as frustration mounts

Negotiators are hitting the gas on coronavirus relief talks amid growing skepticism about the chances of a quick deal.

After days of closed-door negotiations, congressional Democrats and Trump administration officials say they aren't yet close but are now aiming to reach an agreement by the end of the week, injecting fresh urgency into their discussions.

The effort to buckle down comes as Congress and the White House face mounting pressure to take action on a lapsed federal unemployment benefit and eviction moratorium, with simmering frustrations from senators who have watched days of negotiations yield little to no progress.

"We did try to agree to set a timeline," Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Tuesday. "We're going to try to reach an overall agreement, if we can get one, by the end of this week." 

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) added that negotiators went through a list of issues during Tuesday's meeting, saying, "They made some concessions, which we appreciated. We made some concessions, which they appreciated."

But the hurdles to getting an agreement in a matter of days are steep, and senators are increasingly agitated and pessimistic about the chances of both sides resolving their differences by the end of the week.

"It doesn't look good," Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said after a closed-door lunch earlier on Tuesday. "Nothing's moving."

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) added that talks appeared to be stuck in the "maximum leverage stage, which I had hoped that we would have passed by now. That's where we still are."

"I think it's important we see some progress here. ... We need to start seeing that movement," Rubio added when asked if the Senate would go home after this week if there's no agreement.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), noting that he's always an optimist, urged negotiators to either pick up the pace or acknowledge they can't strike a deal.

"My feeling is if we're going to do anything, we ought to do it. Get on with it," Alexander said. "If we're not, then we should let everybody know we're not."

Senate Republicans were told Tuesday to plan to stay in town next week, which would allow for votes on a potential deal - or they could find themselves hanging around to give negotiators more time to talk.

"We'll be in session next week if we don't get a resolution this week," said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who has called for the August recess to be canceled if there's no agreement on COVID-19 relief.

Asked why the Senate would stay in town if most lawmakers aren't directly involved in the talks, Cornyn responded, "How do you think it looks for us to be back home when this is unresolved? This is the most important thing we need to be doing."

The frustration among GOP senators came as Mnuchin said during their closed-door lunch on Tuesday that negotiations had yielded no progress since last week, painting a picture of sluggish talks that haven't even delved into the policy details that deeply divide not only Democrats and Republicans but also GOP lawmakers and the White House.

"I think the secretary's comment was he didn't think they were any closer to a deal now than they were last week," said Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.).

Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) said, "It was actually just the same discussion we had last week. ... No movement."

"There was nothing other than they are far apart, and it will probably take some time to get worked out," Braun added.

But just hours later, in a potential breakthrough, both Mnuchin and Democrats described Tuesday afternoon's meeting as positive, with both sides making "concessions."

White House chief of staff Mark Meadows added that he believed Republicans had made "far more substantial" concessions than those being made by Democrats. The administration offered to extend an eviction moratorium through the end of the year, but Meadows declined to go into detail on other potential compromises.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), during a conference call with House Democrats on Monday, had indicated that she believed a deal was possible as soon as this week, according to a source on the call. But even if there is an agreement that quickly, votes wouldn't take place until next week.

"It seemed like they're far apart on everything," said the source on Monday's call with House Democrats.

But a deal within roughly 72 hours is far from guaranteed.

Among the provisions that still need ironing out are those related to funding for unemployment benefits, with the administration pushing for $200 per week; state and local governments, with the administration opposing any new funding; and the U.S. Postal Service, which Democrats are worried will find itself swamped in November with absentee ballots without some assistance now.

Schumer said they are still "far away on a lot of the important issues" and have a "fundamental disagreement" on the scope and depth of agreement. Pelosi indicated during an interview with PBS that Democrats were sticking by the $600 weekly federal unemployment payment, saying that "there's no in between."

And negotiators haven't yet agreed on a top-line spending figure for the overall package. Pelosi told CNN that she would accept $3.4 trillion - the amount of the bill House Democrats passed in May.

Mnuchin rejected that amount.

"Let me be clear: We're not going anything close to $3.4 trillion," Mnuchin said. "That's just ridiculous."

And there remain deep divisions among Senate Republicans about what they could accept in a final agreement, underscoring the complicated political dynamic between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

McConnell tipped his hand to fractures within his own caucus on Tuesday, saying that it's been "very clear for some time now if you are looking for a total consensus among Republican senators you are not going to find it."

"I'm not anticipating a 100-to-nothing vote in the Senate this time," he added. "It's not going to produce a 'Kumbaya' moment like we had in March or April where everybody voted aye."

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