WASHINGTON — Negotiations on the first coronavirus relief bill in months are inching forward, but the window for action before the Nov. 3 election is closing as Democrats in the Senate again blocked a pared-down Republican proposal on Wednesday.
The only thing that seems certain if the issue is kicked to a post-election session of Congress is uncertainty, with Capitol Hill veterans cautioning against expecting a quick and smooth resolution for an aid package that has tied Washington in knots for months.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, spoke again on Wednesday and continue to signal progress. But President Donald Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, said Pelosi is slow-walking the talks and Trump’s most powerful Senate GOP ally, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, is warning against a costly deal that could drive a wedge between the president and his fellow Republicans.
No one knows whether Election Day will bring much more clarity on the status of a huge virus relief bill that would send another $1,200 direct payment to most Americans, restart bonus unemployment benefits, fund additional testing and vaccines, provide aid to schools and allocate money to states and local governments, a Democratic priority.
A $1.8 trillion rescue plan in March passed virtually unanimously. The Pelosi-pushed package today is even larger but has run into resolute opposition from Republicans. Taking care of the issue would clear the decks for a fresh start on the congressional agenda next year.
Pelosi remains optimistic, even after Washington was blanketed with media reports that McConnell, R-Ky., has warned the White House against sealing a $2 trillion or so relief deal with Pelosi before the election.
“We obviously want to have a deal by Nov. 3,” Pelosi told SiriusXM radio. “That really is going to be up to whether the president can convince Mitch McConnell to do so.”
McConnell says the GOP-controlled Senate is not buying the need for legislation as large as Trump wanted. Meadows told reporters that Pelosi is still too uncompromising.
“We haven’t seen a lot of action from Speaker Pelosi,” Meadows said. “Most of the progress we’ve made have been concessions that the president has made.”
Senate Democrats blocked a Senate GOP plan that McConnell brought to a vote Wednesday. The measure contained more than $100 billion for schools, a $300 per week supplemental unemployment insurance benefit, and more Paycheck Protection Program loans for businesses hard-hit by pandemic-related downturns and closures. It was similar to a measure blocked last month by Democrats.
It does not include the $1,200 direct payments that are so important to Trump. U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who championed the Paycheck Protection Program, backed the package although she has joined Gov. Janet Mills and the rest of the state’s congressional delegation to call for a larger package with state and local aid.
“To me, we’ve got to act before the election,” she told WGAN on Wednesday. “We need to act this week. People can’t wait.”
Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, opposed the package, calling it “wholly inadequate” in a statement and saying if it passed, Republicans may view it to mean no further relief is needed.
Trump says that if he wins reelection, aid will flow immediately. If he loses, it’s unclear whether his enthusiasm for delivering it will be as strong. But Pelosi said she believes McConnell “might not mind doing it after the election.”
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., acknowledged that lame-duck sessions typically aren’t very productive, but he added, “Normally they don’t have this kind of emergency, either.”
Story by Andrew Taylor. BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.