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Deadline Looms as Differences Narrow on COVID Relief Aid



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WASHINGTON — It’s deadline day for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on COVID-19 relief, with the contours of a potential deal taking shape behind the scenes even as President Donald Trump’s GOP allies are recoiling at the administration’s tolerance for a $2 trillion package.

Pelosi negotiated with Mnuchin for nearly an hour on Monday, and her office said they are continuing to narrow their differences — though the progress may be coming too late to immediately deliver on jobless aid, a second round of $1,200 direct payments, and money for schools, testing, and vaccines. Another Pelosi-Mnuchin phone call is slated for Tuesday afternoon.

“Finally, they have come to the table and we’re going to try to get something done,” Pelosi said on MSNBC Monday evening. She said the two sides would take stock on Tuesday, which she has staked out as the deadline if a deal is to be reached before the election.

“Let’s make a judgment. We may not like this, we may not like that but let’s see on balance if we can go forward,” Pelosi said. The election is only two weeks away, however, and the dynamic for the negotiations would be upended if Trump loses reelection or if Democrats retake the Senate.

Aides familiar with the talks say the price tag for a potential Pelosi-Mnuchin deal is inching close to $2 trillion, though numerous policy differences remain unresolved. Senate Republicans are recoiling at both the size of the measure and Pelosi’s demands, even as Trump is beating the drums for an agreement.

Republicans Have Spent Months Talking About a Smaller Aid Package

“I want to do it even bigger than the Democrats. Not every Republican agrees,” Trump said Tuesday on Fox News. “But they will.”

But Republicans have spent months talking about a smaller aid package and the top GOP vote-counter, Sen. John Thune, said Monday that “it would be hard” to find the necessary Republican support for passage of any agreement in that range.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, meanwhile, is pushing ahead with votes this week on GOP measures that stand little chance of advancing.

Without an agreement at least in principle by Tuesday, Pelosi says it’ll be too late to enact anything by Election Day. And if history is any guide, prospects for a deal in the lame-duck session after the election could be dim.

If Trump loses, Congress is likely to stagger through a nonproductive session comparable to the abbreviated session after the decisive 2008 Obama-Biden victory or the 2016 session that punted most of its leftovers to the Trump administration. That scenario would push virus aid into 2021.

Pelosi calls the $1.8 trillion administration offer inadequate, saying that while the overall Trump offer has gone up, the details on a virus testing plan, aid to state and local governments, and tax cuts for the working poor still aren’t to her satisfaction.

The Moment Is Challenging for Pelosi

At the same time, Trump’s GOP allies in the Senate are backing a virus proposal that at $650 billion or so is only about one-third the size of the measure that Pelosi and Mnuchin are negotiating. But the Senate GOP bill has failed once before, and Trump himself says it’s too puny.

First, on Tuesday, the GOP-held chamber will conduct a procedural tally Tuesday on a stand-alone renewal of bipartisan Paycheck Protection Program business subsidies. But while the vote would put the Senate on record as supportive of the idea, it’s not aimed at advancing the measure through time-consuming procedural steps that could interfere with a floor schedule dominated by the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.

The last coronavirus relief package, the $1.8 trillion bipartisan CARES Act, passed in March by an overwhelming margin as the economy went into lockdown amid fear and uncertainty about the virus. Since then, Trump and many of his GOP allies have focused on loosening social and economic restrictions as the key to recovery instead of more taxpayer-funded help.

The moment is challenging for Pelosi as well. For months she has been promising a COVID relief package of more than $2 trillion stuffed with Obama-era stimulus ideas. Even though the Senate and White House are both in GOP hands — and will be at least into January — she has sharply rebuffed anyone who suggests that Democrats should take a smaller deal now rather than risk going home empty-handed until next year.