One more day for coronavirus relief talks, Pelosi says

No guarantee Senate Republicans will take up aid legislation, even if the speaker and Treasury secretary can agree

Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., says there's only a "50-50" chance of a deal in the next month.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., says there's only a "50-50" chance of a deal in the next month. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted October 19, 2020 at 6:15pm

Speaker Nancy Pelosi plans to decide by Tuesday evening whether a bipartisan deal on COVID-19 relief can pass before the Nov. 3 elections, her spokesman said Monday.

The announcement, made in a tweet, came after a nearly hour-long phone call between the Democratic leader and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who have been struggling for days to narrow their differences on a new pandemic relief package. Another call is scheduled for Tuesday.

“The Speaker continues to hope that, by the end of the day Tuesday, we will have clarity on whether we will be able to pass a bill before the election,” spokesman Drew Hammill tweeted.  He said staff would work “around the clock” in hopes of finding common ground.

The latest effort at compromise came as Senate Republicans prepared to take up their own legislation, which amounts to a fraction of what Trump and Democratic leaders are proposing. GOP senators are still reluctant to take up anything approaching the numbers Pelosi and Mnuchin are considering, at least before the elections.

Senate Majority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., told reporters "it would be hard" to find even 13 GOP votes for a bill that cost upwards of $1.8 trillion. That's the number of Republicans needed to supplement the 47-member Senate Democratic Caucus to get over the 60-vote hurdle to final passage.

"I suspect it would have to be something that would attract a significant amount of Republican support, both in the House and the Senate," Thune said.

"My guess is [Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell] is going to want to see some evidence that whatever is agreed upon has Republican support to try to convince Republicans over here to be for it," Thune added, "when their natural instinct, depending on how big it is and what's in it, is probably to be against it."

Meanwhile the Senate on Tuesday planned a procedural vote on a bill that would provide fresh funding for the Paycheck Protection Program, which offers forgivable loans to small businesses, McConnell said. That bill would appropriate a new round of nearly $258 billion for the program, of which $137 billion would be redirected from unspent funds. FiscalNote, the parent company of CQ Roll Call, received a loan under the program.

On Wednesday, the Senate will consider a more expansive package that would provide bigger unemployment benefits, more than $100 billion for schools, and more money for virus testing, tracing and vaccine development and distribution.

That bill, released Monday, appeared nearly identical to a similar measure the Senate declined to advance last month that was estimated to provide $650 billion in new aid. More than half the money, or $350 billion, would be offset by rescissions of unspent funds.

“Nobody thinks this proposal would resolve every problem forever,” McConnell said on the floor Monday. “What it does contain is half a trillion dollars of good that Congress can do right now, through programs that Democrats do not even say they oppose.”

But with Democrats panning that effort as an “emaciated” response to the pandemic, neither GOP bill is likely to garner the 60 votes needed to advance this week. “It’s obvious he designed it to fail,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said of McConnell’s legislative effort.

The House passed a Democrat-written bill Oct. 1, mostly along party lines, that would cost $2.4 trillion over a decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

'A bigger number'

Trump sought to up the ante over the weekend, telling reporters that he would favor even more spending than what Pelosi has proposed.

“I want to do it at a bigger number than she wants,” Trump said. “That doesn't mean all the Republicans agree with me, but I think they will in the end if she would go along.”

McConnell, in a statement Saturday, said the Senate would “consider” any deal reached between Pelosi and the administration. But the disconnect between GOP lawmakers and their own party’s president promises to complicate any hopes of reaching a deal that can be passed before the Nov. 3 election.

Lawmakers in both parties have rejected a White House proposal for $1.88 trillion in relief, with Republicans saying it was too big and Democrats saying it was too small. The Democratic measure, by contrast, would provide a total of $2.8 trillion in aid, although about $400 billion would be offset by raising some business taxes and rescinding unused PPP money.

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows told reporters Monday he remained “hopeful” that a deal is still possible in the next day or so, as he welcomed a 48-hour deadline set by Pelosi over the weekend. But he heaped blame on the speaker for the weeks-long stalemate, saying she was “too rigid” in her negotiations with the administration.

“If past is prologue, Nancy Pelosi is going to put out this 48-hour deadline, she's not going to move anymore, and she's not going to move at all,” Meadows said. “I haven't seen any real movement on her part. “

Democrats have said they have already moved substantially off their earlier demands by slashing about $1 trillion from the $3.4 trillion aid package the House passed in May. They have called on Republicans to meet them “halfway,” which they said would mean about $2.2 trillion.

Meadows said the Trump administration has already "made substantial modifications that come at the risk of jeopardizing Republican support in an effort to hopefully help the American people.”

And he acknowledged that even if a deal with Pelosi can be reached, Senate Republicans may not be willing to support it.

"There are some in the Senate that would support it,” Meadows said. “Whether there's enough votes to get to the 60-vote threshold, that's up to Leader McConnell.”

In a letter to her caucus Sunday night, Pelosi appeared doubtful that myriad disputes over funding and policy language could be resolved within the next few days — a  deadline she set to get a relief bill passed before the election.

“While there was some encouraging news, much work remains,” Pelosi wrote. She continued to cite administration resistance to Democratic proposals to expand child tax credits and earned income tax credits for low-income households.

And she said the White House has backtracked on a pledge to accept Democratic proposals on virus testing and tracing.

“The White House has removed 55 percent of the [House bill's] language for testing, tracing, and treatment,” she wrote. “Especially disappointing was the elimination of measures to address the virus’s disproportionate and deadly impact on communities of color.”

Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said Monday he was not particularly optimistic that a deal could be reached. "I'd put it at 50-50 at best frankly, and that is frustrating," he told CNBC.

But for all the doubts, Pelosi has insisted she is eager to reach a bipartisan deal that could be passed before the new year.

“We want it as soon as possible,” she said on ABC’s “This Week” program Sunday. “And I certainly want it because I don't want to have to be sweeping up after this dumpings of this elephant as we go into a new presidency in a few short months.”

Niels Lesniewski, Jennifer Shutt and Doug Sword contributed to this report.