Senate

Skepticism grows over Friday deadline for coronavirus deal

The White House and congressional Democrats are racing the clock as they try to agree to a framework for a coronavirus relief package by Friday.

The self-imposed deadline sets up a 48-hour scramble for the key negotiators, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Senate Republicans, who are now on the sidelines watching, didn't offer a lot of optimism on Wednesday.

"Not very good," said Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), asked about the chances of getting a deal by Friday, adding that he thinks they could hammer something out "in a week or so." 

"There's a wide gulf between White House negotiators and Democrats," he added. 

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) put the chances of an agreement at "50-50." And Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) characterized himself as "skeptical" the White House and Democrats will be able to meet their own timeline. 

"There's a little progress ... but it's not very encouraging," Perdue said. "If you're going to get a deal that is this comprehensive, you would already have some agreement, and we just don't see any agreement on any of the topics yet." 

Negotiators face competing headwinds: The number of coronavirus cases is climbing and the economy remains rocky, which are incentives for cobbling together another agreement. 

But Republicans are deeply divided on coronavirus relief, undermining their own negotiating leverage. And the growing pull of the November elections typically scuttles any bipartisan negotiations in Washington as lawmakers increasingly turn their attention to the campaign. 

"I'm not anticipating a 100-to-nothing vote in the Senate this time," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters during a weekly press conference. "It's not going to produce a 'Kumbaya' moment like we had in March or April where everybody voted 'aye.' "

What happens if negotiators can't hit their timeline remains unclear. The Senate was expected to leave town on Friday for a four-week break, but McConnell told reporters that they will "certainly" be in session next week. 

Pelosi appeared to distance herself from the hard deadline, telling MSNBC that while she was "confident" there would be a deal, "the timing of it I can't say because I don't know, it just depends." 

The White House and Senate Republicans are warning that if they can't get an agreement by Friday, there likely isn't a deal to be had. Trump is already mulling potential executive orders if Congress can't act.

"At some point you have to set a deadline or just continue this Kabuki dance every day, and nobody wants to do that," said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). "There's plenty of time to get a deal if there's a deal to be gotten, and if there's not a deal to be gotten there's no reason to continue to act like there is."

Meadows told reporters that he believes if they can't get an agreement in principle by Friday, they won't get one. 

"At this point we're either going to get serious about negotiating and get an agreement in principle or - I've become extremely doubtful that we'll be able to make a deal if it goes well beyond Friday," he said.

Not all senators were as pessimistic about the Friday timeline. 

"They felt like both sides have agreed to a good faith effort, by Friday of this week, have agreed to overall spending amount and different areas that would comprise a deal," said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). 

Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), in what appeared to be sarcasm, said the message was "positive as hell." 

The two sides have met nine times since last Monday, including meeting twice on Wednesday: once with each other and a joint meeting with the postmaster general. 

But the White House and congressional Democrats remain far apart on even basic elements like the price tag for the bill. Republicans entered the talks with a $1 trillion package versus House Democrats' $3.4 trillion bill, a divide that underscores not only the amount of money both sides want to spend but the breadth of the response being pitched by both parties. 

Republicans, and Mnuchin, say there are areas where they are closer to an agreement, including money for schools and the Paycheck Protection Program. 

But there are also significant areas of division on how to address unemployment benefits after the $600 per week federal boost expired last week. McConnell doubled down on Wednesday that Republicans would not accept a continuation of the previous amount, which Republicans have argued was too "generous" and encouraged people not to return to work. 

And Schumer warned that the administration's offer to extend the eviction moratorium through the end of the year wasn't enough. 

"They continue to refuse to provide actual assistance to the renters themselves. What good does that do? We can prevent Americans from being kicked out ... for another few months, but if they can't pay the rent, they'll be right back at square one," Schumer said. 

The two sides also haven't resolved McConnell's red line of liability protections. The GOP package provided a five-year shield from lawsuits for entities, like businesses, schools and churches, except in the case of gross negligence or intentional misconduct. 

Cornyn compared the stalemate on liability to the Heisman Trophy, which depicts a collegiate football player extending an arm to ward off opposing players. 

"I'd be happy to talk to any of the Democrats who want to talk," he said. "So far they've just come and given us the Heisman."

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