Schumer: Stimulus package deal on ‘2-yard line’

Pelosi says Senate deal will include greater oversight of a proposed $500 billion loan fund for industries

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, from left, White House Legislative Affairs Director Eric Ueland, and incoming White House chief of staff Rep. Mark Meadows speak to reporters in Capitol before meeting with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, from left, White House Legislative Affairs Director Eric Ueland, and incoming White House chief of staff Rep. Mark Meadows speak to reporters in Capitol before meeting with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 24, 2020 at 11:49am, Updated at 1:00pm

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said talks on a massive $2 trillion economic relief package were on the verge of wrapping up after the Trump administration and Republicans had moved Democrats' way on issues like aid to hospitals and unemployment insurance.

"Last night, I thought we were on the 5-yard line. Right now, we're on the 2," Schumer said on the floor. "Of the few outstanding issues, I don't see any that can't be overcome in the next few hours."

[Senate squabbles over coronavirus stimulus reach fever pitch]

Schumer spoke after what he said was a "very productive meeting" with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C. — whom President Donald Trump tapped earlier this month to be his new chief of staff — and White House legislative liaison Eric Ueland. 

Schumer said he was "very pleased" with a substantial increase in funding for overwhelmed hospitals in the package, as well as Republicans' embrace of "unemployment insurance on steroids" — essentially full wage and salary replacement for four months. "This is a great plan," Schumer said.

Earlier Tuesday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., began to embrace negotiations driven by the Trump administration and Senate, in a turnaround that could bolster prospects for a broadly supported deal.

[Health industry scrambles for funding in third coronavirus bill]

Just a day earlier, Pelosi had introduced a competing House bill that would offer more than $2.5 trillion to counter the pain of job losses and shuttered businesses from the COVID-19 pandemic. House Democrats had said the brewing Senate effort offered insufficient relief.

But Pelosi expressed support Tuesday for a Senate deal that was expected to be unveiled within hours. “I think there is real optimism that we could get something done in the next few hours,” she said on CNBC. While the Senate bill is unlikely to fully address concerns of House Democrats, such as expanded family and medical leave, they aren’t deal-breakers, she said.

And Pelosi said the Senate deal would now include a top priority of House Democrats: greater oversight of a proposed $500 billion loan fund to help struggling industries. She said the new bill would include the creation of a dedicated inspector general and a five-member congressional committee to ensure that business loans are used appropriately.

“I think we’re on a good track,” Pelosi said. “I think the Senate Democrats have moved the bill to a place that I think the leverage is more fairly distributed between employers and workers.”

Pelosi said the goal was to clear the Senate-drafted package by unanimous consent and avoid the need for the House to reconvene, as long as her caucus was comfortable with the Senate product. 

One issue Pelosi later said she was concerned about was a 15 percent increase in the maximum food stamp allotment for individuals and households enrolled in the benefit, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Pelosi included that language in the House Democrats' bill, but she said on MSNBC that Republicans were resisting.

"As [of] last night, they said that’s out. I hope that’s not the case, because that’s so needed," Pelosi said.

Congressional aides speaking on background to discuss private talks said Monday that Democrats wouldn't agree to the bolstered payments to farmers Republicans were seeking unless the GOP went along with SNAP increases.

Aid to states, airlines, pensions

A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe preliminary details, said most of the major sticking points had been resolved. The amount and structure of direct aid to states was still in play, however.

"They want infinity. Our guys want zero. Add it together and divide by two," said the official, who nonetheless said the dispute was likely to be resolved.

The official also said the structure of airline assistance was also still under discussion. As of late Monday, the parties were moving in the direction of giving airlines a choice of whether to take assistance in the form of grants or loans, but they couldn't get both. The package would also have appropriate restrictions on stock buybacks and executive compensation.

The official also said Democrats were still pushing a proposed bailout of multiemployer pension plans headed towards insolvency, but that it was likely to be rejected. "We're not going to do that," the official said.

Mnuchin and Meadows spoke with Trump twice and updated Republicans via a number of conference calls Tuesday morning before heading to the Capitol to meet with McConnell and continue negotiating with Democrats.

“We're looking forward to closing a bipartisan deal today,” Mnuchin said. “The president wants us to get this done today. We're down to a small number of issues, and we look forward to a successful vote.”

Trump appeared eager to sign the measure. “Congress must approve the deal, without all of the nonsense, today,” he tweeted Tuesday morning. “The longer it takes, the harder it will be to start up our economy. Our workers will be hurt!”

Next few hours?

Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., told reporters around 10 a.m. he is expecting Republicans to release the next draft bill in “two or three hours” and that he expects final passage of the bill in the Senate Tuesday night.

“They feel that they're going to get there.  . . .  It's working out the details right now, but it looks very positive,” he said. Democrats have secured $100 billion in funding to bolster the U.S. health care system, one of their key goals at the outset of negotiations, Manchin said.

And Pelosi and other Democrats appeared heartened by what they described as a new commitment to better oversight of the $500 billion loan fund and other assistance in the package. “I’m very happy that it appears the Senate is taking the House language of oversight,” she added.

A senior administration official said the deal includes creating a new inspector general, an oversight board and an oversight committee to monitor the program, similar to what was done for the Troubled Asset Relief Program during the Great Recession.

While details of the Senate bill were not yet available, the House bill would authorize more than $100 million for oversight of spending to provide transparency and help prevent fraud, waste and abuse. 

The legislation would create a Coronavirus Accountability and Transparency Committee made up of “independent” inspectors general to coordinate audits and investigations of the aid and response to the pandemic and report to the public. The House proposal would authorize $50 million for the Government Accountability Office to oversee implementation of the law and update the public.

It also would authorize the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program and the Congressional COVID-19 Aid Oversight Panel to oversee financial assistance, with five members appointed by congressional leaders. In addition, the Treasury and GAO would be required to produce periodic reports to Congress, including collecting and reporting on diversity data from recipients of federal aid. 

White House officials were eager to portray the financial relief package as the critical ingredient needed for an economic rebound. Even as negotiations proceeded Tuesday, brightened prospects for a deal sent stocks soaring, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average breaking 20,000.

"I will say this: If we get this package, we'll be setting the stage for a good rebound in the second half of the year,” National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow told reporters at the White House. “That's our thinking. This package will undergird workers and families, Main Street, small businesses.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he was eager to see the package pass swiftly. “The clock has run out,” he said on the floor. “The buzzer is sounding. The hour for bargaining as though this were business as usual has expired.”

“I hope today is the day this body will get it done,” he added.

Paul M. Krawzak, Doug Sword, Lindsey McPherson, Niels Lewsniewski and Griffin Connolly contributed to this report.

Loading the player...