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Pessimism grows as coronavirus talks go down to the wire

Lawmakers are increasingly pessimistic about the chances of a quick agreement as negotiations over a fifth coronavirus relief bill go down to the wire. 

Congress and the White House are barreling toward an end-of-the-day Friday deadline set by the main negotiators: House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiEverytown urges Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene to resign over newly uncovered remarks Sen. Patrick Leahy returns home after being hospitalized Marjorie Taylor Greene expressed support on Facebook for violence against Democrats MORE (D-Calif.), Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerHumanist Report host criticizes 'conservative Democrats:' They 'hold more power' than progressives Bush-, Obama-era officials urge Senate to swiftly confirm Biden's DHS pick OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Court upholds ruling invalidating Dakota Access, but doesn't shut down pipeline | Schumer calls for Biden to declare climate emergency | Biden seeks to bolster consultation with Indian Country MORE (D-N.Y.), White House chief of staff Mark MeadowsMark MeadowsTrump ex-chief says Senate vote signals impeachment effort 'dead on arrival' The Hill's 12:30 Report: Sights and sounds from Inauguration Day Trump leaves White House, promises to be back in 'some form' MORE and Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven MnuchinThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden argues for legislative patience, urgent action amid crisis On The Money: Senate confirms Yellen as first female Treasury secretary | Biden says he's open to tighter income limits for stimulus checks | Administration will look to expedite getting Tubman on bill Senate confirms Yellen as first female Treasury secretary MORE

But despite weeks of near-daily meetings, the four are struggling to overcome steep political headwinds and policy differences to reach an agreement and have little progress to show so far, raising the odds that they will blow past their self-imposed timeline. 

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“We might not get a deal,” said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyMcConnell about to school Trump on political power for the last time Overnight Defense: Trump impeached for second time | National Guard at Capitol now armed, swelling to 20K troops for inauguration | Alabama chosen for Space Command home Space Command to be located in Alabama MORE (R-Ala.). “There's a lot of pessimism here. ... Are we too far apart?” 

Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiSenate GOP signals it's likely to acquit Trump for second time Just five GOP senators vote Trump impeachment trial is constitutional Portman's exit underscores Republican identity crisis MORE (R-Alaska) told reporters it “doesn’t look like” there will be a deal this week. And asked if he was optimistic there would be a deal, Sen. Mike RoundsMike RoundsSenate GOP signals it's likely to acquit Trump for second time The Memo: Chances recede of GOP breaking with Trump The Hill's Morning Report - Biden: Focus on vaccine, virus, travel MORE (R-S.D.) responded “nope.”

In a sign that a breakthrough isn’t imminent, senators were told Thursday they could go home, but to plan to come back if an agreement is struck. 

Asked if being allowed to leave town signaled that negotiators aren’t optimistic about meeting their Friday deadline, Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinOn The Money: GOP digs in on defending Trump tax cuts | Democrats bullish on raising minimum wage | Financial sector braces for Biden's consumer bureau pick Sen. Patrick Leahy returns home after being hospitalized Bush-, Obama-era officials urge Senate to swiftly confirm Biden's DHS pick MORE (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, said “it certainly does.” 

“I hope that they call us back immediately, call me back tomorrow,” said Durbin. 

Sen. Chris CoonsChris Andrew CoonsHawley files ethics counter-complaint against seven Democratic senators Moderates vow to 'be a force' under Biden Democrats seek answers on impact of Russian cyberattack on Justice Department, Courts MORE (D-Del.), during an interview with MSNBC, said that odds of a deal by Friday are “at best 50-50.” 

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Though the Senate will technically be in session next week, members were not told when they should expect to return. The House left Washington last week, with House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerBudowsky: Democracy won, Trump lost, President Biden inaugurated Congressional leaders present Biden, Harris with flags flown during inauguration LIVE INAUGURATION COVERAGE: Biden signs executive orders; press secretary holds first briefing MORE (D-Md.) planning to give his members a similar 24-hour heads up. 

Nonetheless, the decision puts lawmakers in a politically awkward public relations quagmire of largely leaving Washington, D.C., even as coronavirus cases climb across the country and the virus continues to devastate the nation’s economy. 

A seasonally adjusted 1.2 million new people applied for unemployment benefits in the week ending Aug. 1, according to Labor Department data released Thursday. More than 31 million Americans remained on the jobless rolls through mid-July, and the July jobs report, which will be released Friday, is expected to show a sharp slowdown. 

Despite both sides saying they would like to be able to reach an agreement, the talks face significant policy and political hurdles that make getting a deal on another coronavirus bill significantly harder than the previous four. 

Republicans proposed a $1 trillion package that roughly 20 GOP senators, by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellHumanist Report host criticizes 'conservative Democrats:' They 'hold more power' than progressives Dobbs: Republicans lost in 2020 because they 'forgot who was the true leader' Biden's Cabinet gradually confirmed by Senate MORE’s (R-Ky.) estimate, do not support. Democrats, who have been significantly more unified, are lined up behind the $3.4 trillion bill that passed the House largely along party lines in May. 

After a more than three hour meeting on Thursday night, both the administration officials and Democrats warned that they were "far apart" on an agreement and hadn't committed to meeting again on Friday. 

“We understand where we are and where they are. ....I think there’s a lot of issues we are close to a compromise position on, but I think there's a handful of very big issues that we are still very far apart,” Mnuchin said. 

It's the latest setback for the prospects of a deal after Pelosi and McConnell, in press conferences and floor speeches, painted a picture of negotiations that still remain far off from even an agreement in principle. 

 

“What we’ve seen is plenty of talk, plenty of stalling from the Democratic leaders who have insisted on handling this themselves. No significant movement toward progress,” McConnell said. 

That’s left Senate Republicans frustrated.

"I can't tell you how disappointed I am that more progress hasn't been made," said Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Court upholds ruling invalidating Dakota Access, but doesn't shut down pipeline | Schumer calls for Biden to declare climate emergency | Biden seeks to bolster consultation with Indian Country The Memo: Chances recede of GOP breaking with Trump Schumer calls for Biden to declare climate emergency MORE (R-Fla.). "Frankly, I thought given everything that was going on eventually that fever would break.”

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Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanFormer Ohio state health director reportedly considering Senate bid Senate GOP signals it's likely to acquit Trump for second time Just five GOP senators vote Trump impeachment trial is constitutional MORE (R-Ohio) added, “I think we’re all a little frustrated right now because the negotiations on the next COVID-19 package seem to be at a standstill.” 

But Democrats believe Republicans waited far too long to put together their own package and start negotiations.

“The problem is you know we should have been having these discussions weeks ago — not on the verge of unemployment ending and schools opening. Good grief,” said Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.). “They push you up against the wall and then say it's your fault.” 

Republicans are also deeply divided about what they would accept in a package, with McConnell and the administration sending, at times, mixed signals. 

“It’s really hard for us to negotiate when we’re united and they’re fundamentally fractured. I think the president has to sort of step in here and make a decision about whether he wants a deal or not,” said Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden: Focus on vaccine, virus, travel Tensions running high after gun incident near House floor Democrats float 14th Amendment to bar Trump from office MORE (D-Conn.).

Trump is warning that he could take executive action over the weekend on areas like unemployment insurance, eviction moratoriums, student loans and a payroll tax cut if negotiators aren’t able to get a deal. 

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Democratic leadership, during a joint press conference, dug in on their push to continue the $600 per week federal unemployment benefit, which expired last week. Republicans have called continuing it a non-starter but haven’t agreed on what it should be replaced with, a division that Democrats believe gives them leverage. 

"We have said that we're going to have the $600," Pelosi said. "And they know that we want the $600." 

Pelosi had told reporters after a round of negotiations on Wednesday that she thought they would get a deal, comparing it to there being a “light at the end of the tunnel.” But tipping her hand to the likelihood that they miss the Friday deadline, she said, “how long that tunnel is remains to be seen.” 

On Thursday, Pelosi extended her metaphor, warning that the light might not be a deal but could be another round of economic pain caused by the coronavirus. 

“We have been making some progress, proceeding in a positive way,” she said. “But we have to move quickly — more quickly — because the light at that end of the tunnel may be the freight train of the virus coming at us, if we do not act.”