Democrats seek to exploit Trump-GOP tensions in COVID-19 talks

Democrats are attempting to drive a wedge between President TrumpDonald John TrumpSteele Dossier sub-source was subject of FBI counterintelligence probe Pelosi slams Trump executive order on pre-existing conditions: It 'isn't worth the paper it's signed on' Trump 'no longer angry' at Romney because of Supreme Court stance MORE and Senate Republicans in their negotiations over the next coronavirus relief package.

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPelosi slams Trump executive order on pre-existing conditions: It 'isn't worth the paper it's signed on' On The Money: Anxious Democrats push for vote on COVID-19 aid | Pelosi, Mnuchin ready to restart talks | Weekly jobless claims increase | Senate treads close to shutdown deadline Trump signs largely symbolic pre-existing conditions order amid lawsuit MORE (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerPelosi slams Trump executive order on pre-existing conditions: It 'isn't worth the paper it's signed on' 3 reasons why Biden is misreading the politics of court packing Cruz blocks amended resolution honoring Ginsburg over language about her dying wish MORE (D-N.Y.) are employing a divide-and-conquer strategy, betting that Trump’s eagerness for a big COVID-19 bill that could bolster the faltering economy will override Senate GOP concerns about adding trillions more to the federal debt.

Democrats say the White House-Senate Republican unity started showing signs of strain last week after administration officials floated a short-term extension of the $600 per week federal enhancement to state unemployment benefits that lapsed on Friday.

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White House officials also signaled Trump would be willing to cut a deal with Democrats on legislation that did not include a must-have for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump 'no longer angry' at Romney because of Supreme Court stance On The Money: Anxious Democrats push for vote on COVID-19 aid | Pelosi, Mnuchin ready to restart talks | Weekly jobless claims increase | Senate treads close to shutdown deadline The Hill's Campaign Report: Trump faces backlash after not committing to peaceful transition of power MORE (R-Ky.) — legal protections for businesses, schools and health care providers to guard against coronavirus-related litigation for five years.

Schumer highlighted what he sees as divisions between the White House and Senate GOP conservatives after meeting behind closed doors for an hour and a half with Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinOn The Money: Anxious Democrats push for vote on COVID-19 aid | Pelosi, Mnuchin ready to restart talks | Weekly jobless claims increase | Senate treads close to shutdown deadline Vulnerable Democrats tell Pelosi COVID-19 compromise 'essential' Pelosi asks panels to draft new COVID-19 relief measure MORE and White House chief of staff Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsAnxious Democrats amp up pressure for vote on COVID-19 aid Pelosi hopeful COVID-19 relief talks resume 'soon' The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - GOP closes ranks to fill SCOTUS vacancy by November MORE Tuesday afternoon.

“They're ... not unified. They admit that a large number of Republicans in the Senate will not vote for anything, and we do not know where Donald Trump is. He says a different thing every day, but we're still slogging through — step by step by step,” Schumer told reporters.

Pelosi on Tuesday predicted Democrats would prevail in getting a large-scale bill passed, despite efforts by McConnell to keep the price tag from exceeding $1 trillion. Democratic leaders say McConnell’s proposed cap falls far short of what’s needed to respond to the pandemic. 

“Are we persistent? Yes. Do we believe that we can get the kind of bold, strong bill that America needs? We do,” Pelosi told reporters.

Mnuchin complained during a lunch meeting with Senate Republicans on Tuesday that Pelosi and Schumer have largely refused to budge from their initial negotiating position.

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“I think the comment was he didn’t think they were any closer to a deal than they were this time last week,” said Sen. Sen. Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyHillicon Valley: Subpoenas for Facebook, Google and Twitter on the cards | Wray rebuffs mail-in voting conspiracies | Reps. raise mass surveillance concerns Trump faces tricky choice on Supreme Court pick FBI director warns that Chinese hackers are still targeting US COVID-19 research MORE (R-Mo.), recounting Mnuchin’s report for the GOP conference.

After Tuesday afternoon’s negotiations, when both sides said they’re aiming to strike a deal before the end of the week, Schumer said Republicans and Democrats each gave a little.

“They made some concessions, which we appreciated. We made some concessions that they appreciated,” he told reporters.

Senate Minority Whip Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Trump previews SCOTUS nominee as 'totally brilliant' Feinstein 'surprised and taken aback' by suggestion she's not up for Supreme Court fight Grand jury charges no officers in Breonna Taylor death MORE (D-Ill.) noted that the White House has demonstrated more flexibility than McConnell, who is not part of the negotiations, on issues like the weekly $600 federal enhancement to state unemployment benefits and coronavirus-related liability protections.

“Six hundred dollars a week — McConnell came out against it, Trump came out for it. Immunity [from] liability — red line for McConnell, the president said, ‘Not one of our priorities,’” Durbin said, describing some of the signs of disagreements Democrats see between Trump and Senate Republicans. 

“McConnell is facing a caucus that has two very dominant forces: 20 [Republicans] who want zero, not a penny, and a dozen who are up for reelection. Not a good assignment,” Durbin said of McConnell’s difficult job balancing about a dozen to 20 conservatives worried about the deficit and vulnerable Republicans up for reelection who want to shore up the shaky economy.

Durbin said for the White House to say liability reform isn’t one of its top priorities “really undercuts” McConnell and pointed out that the GOP leader is “not the room” when Pelosi and Schumer negotiate with Mnuchin and Meadows.

McConnell told reporters later on Tuesday that he is prepared to accept a deal reached between White House officials and Democratic leaders, even if he’s not entirely happy with the compromise. 

“I am prepared to support, even if I have some problems with certain parts of it,” he said.

Several Republicans have expressed doubts about whether Mnuchin and Meadows can be counted on to hold the line against Democrats.

Sen. Ben SasseBenjamin (Ben) Eric SasseMcEnany says Trump will accept result of 'free and fair election' McConnell pushes back on Trump: 'There will be an orderly transition' Trump says he'll sign order aimed at protecting premature babies in appeal to religious voters MORE (R-Neb.) last week compared Mnuchin to “big-government Democrats.”

“The White House is trying to solve bad polling by agreeing to indefensibly bad debt,” he warned, voicing concerns shared by at least a dozen GOP senators.

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McConnell acknowledged Friday that “there are 15-20 of my guys that aren’t going to vote for anything” on coronavirus relief.

Democrats feel confident that if they hold pat, Trump will cave and drag at least half the Senate Republican Conference along with him in supporting another multitrillion-dollar relief bill that omits the liability shield McConnell has vowed to include.

“I think we just have to hang fire until they make sense, same thing we did in CARES,” said Sen. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Trump previews SCOTUS nominee as 'totally brilliant' Feinstein 'surprised and taken aback' by suggestion she's not up for Supreme Court fight Hillicon Valley: Murky TikTok deal raises questions about China's role | Twitter investigating automated image previews over apparent algorithmic bias | House approves bill making hacking federal voting systems a crime MORE (D-R.I.), referring to the record $2.2 trillion agreement hammered out in March between Schumer, Pelosi and White House negotiators. The CARES Act included the $600 per week federal boost to state unemployment benefits that expired last week.

On Tuesday afternoon, Republicans moved closer to the Democratic position when Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSteele Dossier sub-source was subject of FBI counterintelligence probe Hillicon Valley: Subpoenas for Facebook, Google and Twitter on the cards | Wray rebuffs mail-in voting conspiracies | Reps. raise mass surveillance concerns Key Democrat opposes GOP Section 230 subpoena for Facebook, Twitter, Google MORE (R-S.C.) introduced an unemployment benefits proposal that is significantly more generous than what some of his GOP colleagues were talking about last week.

Graham’s proposal would supplement state unemployment benefits with a federal enhancement of $500 per week for the rest of August and all of September. 

Starting Oct. 1, unemployed workers could receive a federal benefit of up to $500 a week on top of state unemployment benefits, but the federal enhancement would be capped so that government support would not exceed 100 percent of the person’s pre-pandemic wages.

Some Republicans fear the Democrats’ strategy to wait them out and count on Trump to acquiesce will ultimately prove successful.

“They’re seeing this and thinking, ‘This is good for us, you know. We’re putting pressure on Republicans without taking the heat ourselves,’” one GOP senator said.