Optimism returns to coronavirus relief package negotiations

Speaker Nancy Pelosi says she's 'happy' with the outlook for talks on a sweeping health care and economic aid bill

Mark Meadows, White House chief of staff, attends the second day of the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing for Supreme Court justice nominee Amy Coney Barrett on Oct. 13, 2020.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Mark Meadows, White House chief of staff, attends the second day of the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing for Supreme Court justice nominee Amy Coney Barrett on Oct. 13, 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted October 21, 2020 at 1:33pm, Updated at 4:38pm

The Trump administration is hoping for “breakthroughs” in negotiations on a COVID-19 aid package within 48 hours, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said Wednesday.

Meadows said Speaker Nancy Pelosi so far hasn’t been willing to compromise. “But we’re hopeful that in the next 48 hours or so that there’ll be some breakthroughs where she actually starts negotiating,” he told Salem Radio host Hugh Hewitt. “She hasn’t really been negotiating.”

Pelosi has likewise struck an increasingly optimistic tone about reaching a bipartisan deal that could deliver a new round of pandemic relief after months of stalemate.
“I'm pretty happy,” the California Democrat told MSNBC. “I think we have a prospect for an agreement.”

Pelosi said she was aiming to get a deal passed before Election Day, but acknowledged that Senate Republicans could disrupt that plan.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told Republicans Tuesday he advised the White House not to cut any deal on large-scale relief until after the Nov. 3 election, according to several reports.

“We obviously want to have a deal by November 3rd,” Pelosi said on Sirius XM’s Joe Madison Show. “That really is going to be up to whether the president can convince Mitch McConnell to do so. ... I think Mitch McConnell might not mind doing it after the election.”

But the administration has been betting that any compromise would ultimately pass the Senate.

“If there’s a bipartisan deal, I believe there would be enough votes there to make sure that we get that across the finish line and to the president’s desk,” Meadows told reporters Wednesday.

Pelosi held a 48-minute phone call Wednesday with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who has led negotiations for the White House. Another talk is scheduled for Thursday.

“Today's conversation brings us closer to being able to put pen to paper to write legislation,” Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill tweeted. “Differences continue to be narrowed on health priorities, including language providing a national strategic testing and contract tracing plan, but more work needs to be done to ensure that schools are the safest places in America for children to learn.”

But Senate Republicans have shown no willingness to back the roughly $2 trillion aid package currently on the table. As if to prove the point, McConnell brought to the floor Wednesday a GOP-written bill that would provide only a fraction of the relief sought by Democrats and President Donald Trump.

McConnell’s bill, which Democrats have vowed to block, is nearly identical to one offered last month that the Senate declined to advance. That measure, which would provide aid to hospitals, schools, expanded unemployment benefits and small-business loans, would cost $519 billion over a decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

But with Democrats lined up in opposition, Republicans lacked the 60 votes needed to advance the measure. A motion to cut off debate on the bill was rejected on a 51-44 vote Wednesday.

“There’s almost nothing in this proposal that Democrats even claim to oppose,” McConnell said on the floor ahead of the vote. “If this relief does not pass, it will be because Senate Democrats chose to do Speaker Pelosi’s political dirty work rather than stand up for struggling people.”

Democrats have heaped scorn on what they called an “emaciated” version of pandemic relief that falls well short of what’s needed to ease economic suffering.

Pressure building

With the unemployment rate more than double its pre-pandemic level, public pressure for a new aid deal continues to build. More than 70 percent of likely voters said they support a $2 trillion aid package, according to a New York Times/ Siena College poll conducted Oct. 15-18.

And a survey by the National Governors Association found that 89 percent of the $150 billion provided to state and local governments in March has been allocated, with 62 percent of those funds already obligated.

The size of any additional aid for state and local governments remains a major sticking point in the negotiations, Pelosi and Meadows confirmed. Democrats have pressed for robust funding, saying states and localities will suffer mass layoffs as a result of dwindling revenue without it. Republicans have been reluctant to back aid to states they say were poorly managed even before the pandemic hit.

The other big obstacle, they said, is whether and how to provide liability protection for employers from pandemic-related lawsuits. National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow told CNBC on Wednesday that providing that protection, with an exception for cases of “gross negligence,” would help bolster economic recovery. But Pelosi said language sought by Republicans would undermine the right of workers to have safe job sites.

Senate Republicans have opposed spending as much as $2 trillion in new aid when the federal deficit for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 clocked in at $3.1 trillion. But they said they were equally troubled by policy provisions, such as whether any funding could be used for abortions or whether any money would go to undocumented immigrants.

“I think part of the problem is that people have just been focusing on the top line,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. “Part of the message from Senate Republicans is we need to have a discussion about the substance and whether, irrespective of the top line, whether the policy makes sense.”

Meadows said the White House was trying to scrub language that could trigger opposition from Senate Republicans.

“We’re down now to looking at some of the language in some of the provisions to make sure that there are not poison pills there,” Meadows said. “If we can get that right, then hopefully the numbers will get right. “

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.

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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.

If no deal can pass before the elections, it might not happen at all this year, said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., a senior appropriator. While Congress will convene in a lame-duck session after the election, the political fallout from the hotly contested races may make negotiations all the more difficult then, he said.

“I'm never very optimistic about the lame duck,” Blunt said. “And I've never been surprised that you don't get near as much done as you think you're gonna get done.”

Jennifer Shutt, Katherine Tully-McManus and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.