WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., huddled at the White House Thursday with President Donald Trump, searching for a way forward on vital COVID-19 rescue money, while Trump’s top bargainers returned to Capitol Hill amid increasing concern that negotiations with Democrats might collapse.
The impasse in the negotiations is putting at risk more than $100 billion to help reopen schools, a fresh round of $1,200 direct payments to most people, and hundreds of billions of dollars for state and local governments to help them avoid furloughing workers and cutting services as tax revenues shrivel.
McConnell is a key player in the troubled talks and possesses far more experience than Trump’s administration negotiating team, which is publicly frustrated by the inflexible tactics of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. The Democratic duo has not yielded much ground from an unprecedented $3.5 trillion House-passed rescue package.
McConnell seemed to downplay the significance of his meeting with Trump, telling a reporter merely that “we talked a little bit about everything.”
And Pelosi and Schumer were still exuding confidence in a political and legislative landscape that has tilted in their favor. Trump and McConnell both badly want an agreement, but Democrats control the House and may actually provide the lion’s share of votes in the Senate. The votes, as Pelosi often says, are the currency of the realm.
Pelosi and Schumer have stayed in sync throughout the talks — which they demanded — even reminding reporters Thursday that their relationship dated to Schumer’s time as a hard-charging House member in the 1980s and early 1990s.
They say the federal coronavirus aid package needs to be huge in order to meet the moment: a surge in cases and deaths, double-digit joblessness, and the threat of poverty for millions of the newly unemployed.
“We believe the patient needs a major operation while Republicans want to apply just a Band-Aid,” Schumer said. “We won’t let them just pass the Band-Aid, go home and leave America bleeding.”
After a session Wednesday that produced no progress, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin returned to Pelosi’s Capitol suite Thursday evening to confront the gulf in their negotiating stances. Both sides have set a goal of agreeing on a deal by week’s end — though that is appearing increasingly out of reach.
“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have at least some glimmer of hope,” Meadows said as he entered Pelosi’s office. “If they’re willing to be serious about negotiations, then we’ll reach a deal. The president wants to get a deal. Hopefully, we make more progress today than we have in the last several days.”
The White House is also promising that Trump will attempt to use executive orders to address elements of the congressional package involving evictions and jobless benefits. But there’s no evidence that the strategy would have much impact or be anything close to what’s necessary, and Pelosi appeared unimpressed at a morning news conference.
“I don’t think they know what they’re talking about,” Pelosi said dismissively.
Addressing reporters, Pelosi and Schumer staked out a firm position to extend a lapsed $600-per-week bonus jobless benefit, demanded generous child care assistance and reiterated their demand for food stamps and assistance to renters and homeowners facing eviction or foreclosure.
“Don’t nickel-and-dime our children,” Pelosi said. “Don’t say, ‘We want to give a tax break to a business lunch and not give more money for children to have food stamps.’”
Pelosi was referring to a GOP proposal to increase the deduction for business meals to 100 percent from 50 percent. The idea seems likely to die, along with Trump’s efforts to cut the Social Security payroll tax. But Schumer and Pelosi continue to push to restore a tax break for state and local taxes paid mostly by wealthier people with high incomes and valuable homes.
McConnell is likely to have to assume a higher profile if the talks are to come to a successful close, but he issued a grim assessment of the situation on Thursday, again complaining that Pelosi and Schumer were not negotiating in good faith.
“Day after day, they’ve stonewalled the president’s team. Day by day, they’ve tried to invent new euphemisms to create the illusion of progress,” McConnell said Thursday.
Frustration was palpable among Republican senators shuttling in and out of a GOP lunch session, some of whom say Schumer is intent on using the situation as a hammer against Republicans. Schumer is desperate to win the Senate majority just as Republicans are desperate to hold on in a terrible political year.
“As long as they calculate that they’re better off politically doing nothing, it’s going to be hard for us to move forward,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. “And that’s the calculation they’ve made, it appears.”
McConnell is sending the Senate home rather than forcing impatient senators to bide their time while Democrats play hardball. That suggests a vote won’t come until late next week or even after. Progress has been scant in the talks despite more than a week of negotiation.
White House negotiators made some concessions on jobless benefits and aid to state and local governments in a session on Tuesday — and then promptly got scalded by Republicans after details leaked out.
But Pelosi, a sometimes imperious force whose experience in negotiations is far more extensive than Meadows, will probably have to make some concessions soon. Her dollar figure for aid to states and local governments far exceeds what independent experts such as Moody’s Analytics recommend, for example, and her position in favor of restoring the expensive state and local tax break is probably unsustainable.
“She’s not going to allow the negotiations to collapse. She knows what the right moment is to pull the trigger and to try and close the deal,” said Democratic lobbyist Steve Elmendorf. “But she also knows when to wait and to let the other side come to you.”