White House sweetens pandemic aid, but gaps remain with Democrats

The Trump administration said it's willing to go up to $2 trillion

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin raised the pandemic relief offer to Democrats to $1.8 trillion, a White House spokeswoman said, adding the administration was willing to go up to $2 trillion.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin raised the pandemic relief offer to Democrats to $1.8 trillion, a White House spokeswoman said, adding the administration was willing to go up to $2 trillion. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted October 9, 2020 at 5:01pm

The Trump administration moved closer to Democrats in coronavirus aid talks Friday, saying it was prepared to accept up to $2 trillion in new relief.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin offered $1.8 trillion to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., but the Trump administration is willing to go higher so long as the top line remains "below $2 trillion," White House Director of Strategic Communications Alyssa Farah told reporters Friday.

The revised package would exceed a $1.62 trillion offer that Mnuchin presented to Pelosi last week. It still falls short of the $2.2 trillion aid package the Democrat-controlled House passed in a mostly party-line vote last week before adjourning for a monthlong recess.

At between $1.8 trillion and $2 trillion, the offer would mark a policy reversal for President Donald Trump, who on Tuesday called off negotiations on a broad pandemic relief package until after the Nov. 3 election. The stock market dipped after that decision and both parties have faced political pressure to reach a deal.

Trump himself suggested a bigger package was coming, tweeting early Friday that "Covid Relief Negotiations are moving along. Go Big!” 

As reports circulated Friday that Mnuchin was taking an offer of $1.8 trillion to Congress, Trump told radio host Rush Limbaugh that he wanted a bigger package.

“I would like to see a bigger stimulus package, frankly, than either the Democrats or Republicans are offering. I'm going the exact opposite now, OK?" he said. "I'm telling you something I don't tell anybody else cause maybe it helps, maybe it hurts negotiations."

But Farah said Trump's comment to Limbaugh referred to the size of relief checks rather than to the size of the package.

"We're willing to come up on the levels that we're giving in terms of direct payments to the American people, potentially PPP loans as well as airline aid," Farah said, referring to the Paycheck Protection Program that provides forgivable loans to small businesses. "We're still looking at, we want to keep that [topline] number below $2 trillion. But some progress being made."

FiscalNote, parent company of CQ Roll Call, has received a loan under the Paycheck Protection Program.

Pelosi spoke with Mnuchin on Friday for about 30 minutes to review "a proposal that attempted to address some of the concerns Democrats have," Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill tweeted. "Of special concern, is the absence of an agreement on a strategic plan to crush the virus. For this and other provisions, we are still awaiting language from the Administration as negotiations on the overall funding amount continue."

Before speaking with Mnuchin, Pelosi told MSNBC: “I do hope that we will have an agreement soon.”

But for all the hopeful talk and burst of 11th-hour negotiating, it wasn’t clear that an aid deal was any more likely than it’s been in recent weeks. Senate Republicans so far have been reluctant to back more than $1 trillion in new aid.

“I just think the situation is kind of murky,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said at an appearance in Bullitt County, Kentucky. “And I think the murkiness is a result of the proximity of the election and everybody kind of trying to elbow for political advantage. I'd like to see us rise above that like we did back in March and April, but I think that's unlikely in the next three weeks.”

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who talked to Trump on Thursday, said he was pessimistic about a deal emerging. “I think the president is eager to cut a deal for a relief package,” Cruz said on MSNBC. “And at the same time, I don’t think it’s going to happen.” He said he thought Democratic leaders “have made the political judgment that it benefits [Democratic presidential challenger] Joe Biden if nothing passes.”

The two parties have sparred for months over the size and shape of a new aid package designed to buttress an economy ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Among the main sticking points: Democrats have sought robust aid to state and local governments facing layoffs as their revenue dries up. Republicans have been reluctant to approve such aid, saying they don’t want to reward poorly managed states.

McConnell has led a campaign to include liability protection from pandemic-related lawsuits for employers. Democrats have resisted that effort, saying workers deserve the right to sue to ensure their workplaces are safe.

The two parties have also quarreled over the size of an expanded unemployment insurance benefit. A $600 weekly benefit provided in March expired at the end of July. Democrats want to restore that benefit while Republicans have pushed for a smaller amount, saying $600 provides a disincentive to return to work.  

Niels Lesniewski, Ellyn Ferguson and Jessica Wehrman contributed to this report.