Negotiators on a $2 trillion fiscal stimulus measure to carry U.S. households, businesses and health care providers through the novel coronavirus pandemic were poring over paperwork late Tuesday night hoping to avoid last-minute hitches.
All day it has been a similar scene, with top Trump administration officials led by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin marching back and forth between Senate leadership offices. Various iterations of "getting closer" were a popular refrain as night fell on the Capitol.
"We are very, very close," Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., whom President Donald Trump tapped to become his new chief of staff earlier this month, told reporters just before midnight.
Rank-and-file Republicans didn't share Meadows' optimism. "I'm sorry to be so worked up," a visibly angry Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., said from the Senate floor earlier in the evening, asserting Democrats were holding up the measure for "political advantage" over the president they tried to remove from office.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a onetime Trump antagonist turned staunch ally, called on the president to recall Mnuchin and stop negotiating at all. "Pass the damn bill. Stop negotiating. Enough is enough," he said. "If it's not perfect, we can fix it later, but we need to vote tonight."
Earlier, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told House Democrats on an afternoon conference call that talks on the massive economic rescue package were in the "red zone," defined as the 20-yard area just before the football goal line.
Pelosi's Senate counterpart, Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., had said the talks were at the 2-yard line in a floor speech earlier Tuesday. "Of the few outstanding issues, I don't see any that can't be overcome in the next few hours," he said around noon.
But Pelosi said she's holding out for a 15 percent boost in food stamp benefits for low-income households during the COVID-19 crisis, safety regulations for hospital workers and other first responders, and insurance coverage for all aspects of coronavirus testing.
Pelosi suggested there's still a divide over helping cash-strapped employer pension plans. House Democrats wanted to provide substantial relief for both single employer plans and multiemployer union plans.
But in at least one iteration of the bill being negotiated in the Senate, only single employer plans would get some help. Companies with traditional defined benefit plans would be able to delay their required quarterly contributions until year end, and avoid having to freeze benefits or incur other restrictions because of the steep market drop since February.
Eric Ueland, the White House's chief lobbyist on Capitol Hill, disputed that there'd be any relief for multiemployer pension plans, like the major teamsters union plan, that have sought financial assistance to stay afloat. "We have not agreed nor will we agree to multiemployer pension plan language in this package," he said.
Pelosi also warned Democrats about possible GOP "poison pills" cropping up in the late-stage talks, according to a source on the call who asked for anonymity to share details of a private discussion.
One of those appeared to be language in the Senate version that would bar small-business loans for nonprofits that receive Medicaid funding unless they provide substance abuse counseling. Democrats thought that was a backdoor limitation on any money going to organizations that perform abortions.
Aid to states, hospitals, airlines
Nonetheless, Pelosi touted several Democratic priorities in the measure, including $150 billion in direct aid for state and local governments suffering steep drops in tax receipts. "They want infinity. Our guys want zero. Add it together and divide by two," a senior Trump administration official, who wasn't authorized to speak for the record, said earlier Tuesday.
Pelosi said negotiators had agreed to $130 billion for hospitals facing sharp losses from canceled elective surgeries and a massive surge in patients being treated for the new illness, of which confirmed U.S. cases have now topped 50,000, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
Pelosi also praised the inclusion of a five-member board, appointed by congressional leaders, to oversee a $500 billion credit facility run by the Treasury Department with the Federal Reserve. That program would lend specifically to airlines, but also firms with a connection to national security as well as other qualifying companies, states and municipalities.
Specifics of airline aid remained to be worked out, however, as the industry and aviation workers were pushing for at least half the aid to be in the form of direct grants to keep workers on payroll. "We continue to work through that," Ueland said.
The senior administration official earlier said the plan currently calls for airlines to be able to choose whether they want direct aid or loans.
"I think in some of the areas, particularly when it comes to airlines, that's really important in terms of how that language is written in that fund. So I think that's going to take a few hours, but I'm very hopeful," according to Senate Small Business Chairman Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
Meanwhile, Rubio's portion of the bill now seems to have swelled to some $366 billion for forgivable small-business loans, with $17 billion set aside for businesses in low-income areas and investment companies that provide venture capital to small businesses, according to drafts floating around the Capitol on Tuesday.
Language had also been added setting aside $10 billion for "economic injury disaster loans" in specially-designated areas.
Senate Republicans characterized remaining holdups as mostly about making sure legislative language reflected what the principals have agreed to. "I think we’re at the point of reviewing language to make sure that the language says what we think it says," said Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.
Pelosi's push for food stamp funding shouldn't be characterized as a "snag," according to Ueland. "We continue to work to see if we can find a solution on that issue that reflects the priorities of Republicans and the interests of Democrats. We’re not there yet," he said.
Republicans had been pushing for a $20 billion increase in Commodity Credit Corporation funding for farmers, which Democrats said they wouldn't agree to without the boost for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which administers food stamps.
Schumer said Democrats had won big increases in hospital funding as well as four months of robust unemployment benefits that would approximate full salary replacement. A Democratic aide familiar with the talks, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the proposal would apply to freelance and gig workers who wouldn't ordinarily qualify, and would top up regular state benefits with an extra $600 a week.
Applicants would also get an extra 13 weeks on top of the regular allotment, which varies by state but is typically 26 weeks, plus extra weeks depending on certain unemployment rate triggers. That language tracks with the version of Senate bill text circulating Tuesday, which wasn't final.
Mnuchin didn't see any showstoppers on the way to an agreement.
“I would just say we’re trying to finalize all the documents. Going through a lot of complicated issues and we’re making a lot of progress," he said. “Again we’re trying to get a deal as quick as we get a deal. So, I hope it’s tonight. Absolutely. Still think we can get there.”
Even if the Senate could pass the measure quickly, it was an open question whether the House would be able to clear the massive package by unanimous consent, as Pelosi wants. Some Democrats on the afternoon conference call said they needed more information about what's in the bill first, according to a source on the call.
A GOP whip source said the leadership team is pushing for a voice vote over UC because an objection is likely despite strong Republican support for the bill. They've discussed it with various factions of the GOP conference and believe a voice vote is a possible outcome.
A voice vote would give members an opportunity to claim they dissented, but a member could still object further by asking for a roll call vote.
David Lerman, Paul M. Krawzak, Doug Sword and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.