Coronavirus relief talks bleed past deadline amid lingering doubts

Senate Republicans skeptical about direction of talks between Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., at a news conference after the Senate Republican Policy luncheon Tuesday.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., at a news conference after the Senate Republican Policy luncheon Tuesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted October 20, 2020 at 6:13pm

Top negotiators didn't reach a bipartisan deal on COVID-19 aid by a self-imposed deadline Tuesday, as doubts grew that any new relief bill could become law before the Nov. 3 elections.

Both sides pledged to continue their talks Wednesday, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi said some progress was made in a call Tuesday with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

“Today’s deadline enabled the Speaker and Secretary to see that decisions could be reached and language could be exchanged, demonstrating that both sides are serious about finding a compromise,” Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill tweeted.

But White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, while acknowledging some progress, suggested plenty of obstacles remain. "There's still several hundred billion dollars apart between the parties," he told CNBC. He said the administration was trying to resolve "policy differences that would be poison pills for Senate Republicans," adding, "It's not just the money."

In another sign of trouble for a compromise, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told Republicans he's urged the White House not to cut any large-scale relief deal before the elections, according to several news reports. Senate Republicans have expressed deep reservations about voting for a package anywhere close to the roughly $2 trillion that could be in play.

The Kentucky Republican hedged his bets with reporters Tuesday on whether and when he would take up any deal reached between Pelosi and the White House, clarifying weekend comments that he'd only "consider" it.

“If a presidentially supported bill clears the House, at some point we’ll bring it to the floor,” McConnell said at his weekly news conference.

But his pledge to schedule floor action “at some point” left plenty of wiggle room for the timing of any future vote. And it underscored Republican doubts that a deal is possible before the election.

'Not optimistic'

“It’s getting to be towards the last minute,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala. “And the clock keeps ticking away. I am not optimistic about us doing anything.”

Several GOP senators said political pressure from the coming election impeded negotiations in recent weeks.

Nancy Pelosi isn’t serious,” said Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., the No. 3 Senate GOP leader. He said Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer made a political decision that “nothing is going to pass until after Election Day because they believe that they have better chances of success on Election Day if the American people are held hostage all the way through.”

Pelosi began backing away from a hard deadline earlier Tuesday, saying she set the deadline only to take stock of where negotiations stood. She said legislation would need to be written by the end of this week to get a deal passed by Election Day.

"It isn't that this day was a day that we would have a deal,” the California Democrat told Bloomberg Television. “It was a day when we would have our terms on the table to be able to go to the next step."

She said legislation was being drafted as talks proceed so that lawmakers would be ready to act quickly if a deal is reached.

The two biggest hurdles to a deal remain aid to state and local governments and liability protection for employers from pandemic-related lawsuits, Pelosi said. She said she couldn’t accept language from McConnell that would shield employers from suits if they abide by workplace safety regulations.

“He’s doing tort reform when we’re trying to do safety in the workplace,” Pelosi said. McConnell has said the economy could be crippled by thousands of coronavirus-related lawsuits as businesses try to reopen during the pandemic.

And the two parties have squabbled for months over how much aid should be given to state and local governments facing severe revenue shortfalls from economic lockdowns. Democrats have said robust aid is needed to prevent mass layoffs, while Republicans have opposed sending “bailout” money to states that they say were poorly managed even before the pandemic hit.

But Pelosi said she remained “optimistic” because Republicans have “finally” accepted language on testing and tracing that is needed to “crush the virus.”
“On that score, they’ve come a long way on that, I have to admit,” she told Bloomberg.

House Democrats passed a relief package through their chamber this month that would cost $2.4 trillion over a decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The measure 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 money for small-business loans.

The White House has proposed its own $1.88 trillion aid plan, which Democrats said was too small and Republican lawmakers said was too big.

With a comprehensive deal still elusive, McConnell brought a bill to the Senate floor Tuesday designed simply to provide a second round of forgivable loans to small businesses, amounting to a cash infusion of about $258 billion.

“American families, working families, have waited months and months for Speaker Pelosi to end her Marie Antoinette act and let Congress find common ground,” McConnell said on the floor. “There is no reason the second round of the Paycheck Protection Program should wait another day.”

But Democrats, as expected, opposed the measure. In a procedural test vote, Democrats voted to "table" the bill, although the measure remains pending because of Republican support.

“It lacks specific funding for restaurants, for independent theaters and venues, for local newspapers, TV, radio stations, critical-need hospitals, minority-owned businesses, and for all of our nonprofits,” Schumer said. “In each of those areas in which the Republican bill is deficient, so many are left behind.”

McConnell will make another attempt at small-scale relief Wednesday, when he brings up a bill nearly identical to one offered last month that the Senate declined to advance. That measure would provide about $650 billion in aid to hospitals, schools, expanded unemployment benefits and small-business loans, offset by about $350 billion in savings from unspent funds and rescissions.

Democrats have vowed to block, for a second time, what they described as an “emaciated” relief plan.

Jennifer Shutt and Paul M. Krawzak contributed to this report.