Pessimism grows as hopes fade for coronavirus deal

Greg Nash - Bonnie Cash

Lawmakers are growing increasingly pessimistic about the chances of passing another coronavirus relief package, warning they don’t believe there will be a deal in the final weeks before the election.

The dimming hopes for a sweeping agreement come even as Senate Republicans plan to vote Thursday on their slimmed-down bill, which won’t garner the 60 votes needed to advance, and as stalled talks between congressional Democrats and the White House show no signs of a breakthrough.

Complicating matters further is the tight time frame: Lawmakers have just a matter of weeks before they leave Washington for the final campaign stretch, and between now and then they have other priorities, like funding the government to avoid a shutdown on Oct. 1.

Without significant progress, senators say the prospects for an agreement are fading.

“I think there’s always some possibility, but … unless something really broke through, it’s not going to happen,” said Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.).

Asked what he thought the chances of a bipartisan deal were, Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) replied, “Zero.”

“I don’t think there will be” any deal, he added.

The new pessimism comes only days after the Senate returned to Washington from a four-week August recess. The House is scheduled to return on Monday for roughly three weeks.

But there have been few signs of movement in the talks between Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) since negotiations derailed in early August amid steep differences on the price tag and key policy provisions in a coronavirus relief package.

Unlike July and early August, when Republicans were drafting their bill and bipartisan talks were happening almost daily, Mnuchin and Meadows did not attend Wednesday’s closed-door Republican caucus lunch, where they had previously provided updates on a potential agreement with Democrats.

Mnuchin told reporters that he had spoken with Pelosi — but about funding the government before the Sept. 30 deadline.

When asked about the chances for another coronavirus deal this year, Mnuchin said, “I don’t know. We’ll see. I hope there is. It’s important to a lot of people out there.”

Democrats are feeling little pressure to move from their negotiating position. Pelosi and Schumer offered in early August to reduce their $3.4 trillion price tag by $1 trillion if Republicans were willing to increase their $1.1 trillion plan by the same amount.

The White House rejected that offer, though they’ve moved closer toward endorsing a $1.5 trillion package. The Senate GOP bill getting a vote on Thursday is expected to cost around $500 billion.

But that’s unlikely to satisfy Democrats.

Pelosi, during an interview with MSNBC, rejected the idea that some funding was better than no additional coronavirus relief.

“No, it isn’t. …I hear it a lot. And, clearly, it springs from all the good intentions we all have to help people as soon as we can. [But] it does nothing,” Pelosi said.

Asked if the talks with the White House “were alive,” Schumer told reporters, “Well, they can be alive.”

In the meantime, Republicans will hold a vote Thursday on a scaled-down coronavirus relief bill that would provide a $300-per-week federal unemployment benefit, another round of Paycheck Protection Program funding, more money for hospitals and schools and liability protections against coronavirus-related lawsuits.

Republicans are increasingly confident about their ability to garner at least 51 votes for the bill — a U-turn from as recently as last month when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) warned that up to 20 GOP senators would not support any additional coronavirus relief.

Even though the Republican package won’t get the 60 votes needed to overcome procedural hurdles and pass the Senate, GOP senators argue that isn’t the point. Instead, they want to let their members vote on legislation that spells out what Republicans support. The vote will also give vulnerable Republicans something to tout back home as they try to fend off Democratic challengers.

“I think Republican senators have a chance this week to at least nail down some of their priorities … and I hope that is good enough because our vulnerable members have all been working hard to get to a conclusion,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of GOP leadership.

Asked if he thought it was unlikely they would pass a coronavirus bill before the election, he added, “My guess would be that if we leave in September with a [stopgap spending measure], we will not come back to do anything before the election.”

And McConnell, during a weekly press conference Wednesday, accused Democrats of sabotaging the coronavirus negotiations until after the election, saying that “the conclusion you can honestly draw from this is they don’t want to do a deal. They don’t want to do a deal before the election.”

Democrats, however, argue that the GOP bill isn’t a good-faith attempt to get a COVID-19 agreement, instead asserting that McConnell is more interested in trying to provide cover to his vulnerable members as they play defense and try to hold onto their majority.

“Some of them believe we don’t need to do anything,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) about whether Republicans would hold Thursday’s vote and want to move on. He added that if there was still going to be a bipartisan bill it “certainly won’t be the McConnell plan.”

Schumer said Democrats are hoping that by blocking the GOP measure on Thursday, it will force Republicans to negotiate a bipartisan bill, adding that McConnell was the “secretary of cynicism” for his plan. But he also floated that Republicans don’t want an agreement.

“Some would say if they want to come to a compromise, why would they put poison pills in the bill that they know are non-starters to get a bipartisan compromise?” Schumer said. “It is because they don’t really want a bill, but a political issue, one that will ultimately backfire on them, I believe.”

Tags Chuck Schumer Coronavirus Dick Durbin Mark Meadows Mike Braun Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Richard Shelby Roy Blunt Steven Mnuchin

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