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 Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. 

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. 

“We might not get a deal,” said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.). “There’s a lot of pessimism here. … Are we too far apart?” 

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (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 Rounds (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 Durbin (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 Coons (D-Del.), during an interview with MSNBC, said that odds of a deal by Friday are “at best 50-50.” 

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 Hoyer (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 McConnell’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 Rubio (R-Fla.). “Frankly, I thought given everything that was going on eventually that fever would break.”

Sen. Rob Portman (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 Murphy (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. 


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.”  

Tags Charles Schumer Chris Coons Chris Murphy Dick Durbin doug jones Lisa Murkowski Marco Rubio Mark Meadows Mike Rounds Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Richard Shelby Rob Portman Steny Hoyer Steven Mnuchin
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