WASHINGTON (NEXSTAR) — The first piece of business President Donald Trump tweeted about following his hospitalization for coronavirus was stimulus relief for Americans. The message from Trump underscores the political importance of reaching a bipartisan deal and delivering a new round of direct payments to most Americans.
“Our great USA wants and needs stimulus,” tweeted Trump. “Work together and get it done.”
That’s exactly what House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have tried to do over the last week. The pair had regular meetings that lasted more than an hour, in some cases.
On Sunday morning, Pelosi told CBS’ Face the Nation that she and Mnuchin are “making progress.”
The good news: Negotiators are closer to a deal than they’ve been on months.
The bad news: They’re still a long way off.
In addition to settling on a financial figure for the package, the GOP and Democratic leadership still has to deal with the language of the legislation, which remains a major roadblock. In particular, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s insistence on a liability shield for businesses fearing COVID-related lawsuits after they reopen their doors.
What isn’t an issue is stimulus checks. Both Pelosi and Mnuchin have said direct payments will be part of any approved package.
While checks have been widely pushed by Democrats, they could largely be viewed as a win for the president. When the first round of checks was distributed, Trump’s signature was on each of the payments. If Trump was able to get a second round of relief distributed as people are heading to the polls for early voting, it would certainly be something to brag about in a period where the president can’t publicly campaign.
Talks between Mnuchin and Pelosi have been closely held. As of Sunday, the two sides were roughly $600 million apart.
As negotiations dragged out without coming to terms, Pelosi pushed a $2.2 trillion COVID-19 relief bill through the House Thursday night.
A $1.6 trillion White House plan, offered Wednesday, gave ground with a $250 billion proposal on funding for state and local governments. Mnuchin’s offer of a $400 per week jobless benefit put him in the same ballpark as Democrats backing a $600 benefit.
However, the GOP price tag of $1.6 trillion or more could drive many Republicans away, however, even as it failed to satisfy Pelosi.
“We raised our offer to $1.6 trillion,” White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters Thursday. “It’s one that she is not interested in.”
Pelosi’s move to pass her larger relief measure in the House was largely symbolic and puts lawmakers no closer to actually delivering aid such as more generous weekly unemployment payments, extended help for small businesses and especially troubled economic sectors such as restaurants and airlines, and another round of $1,200 direct payments to most Americans.
The vote was advertised as a way to demonstrate Democrats were making a good faith offer on coronavirus relief, but 18 Democrats abandoned the party and sentiment remains among more moderate Democrats to make more concessions and guarantee an agreement before Election Day.
Republicans controlling the Senate remained divided.
At issue is a long-delayed package that would extend another round of $1,200 direct stimulus payments, restore bonus pandemic jobless benefits, speed aid to schools and extend assistance to airlines, restaurants and other struggling businesses. A landmark relief bill in March passed with sweeping support and is credited with helping the economy through the spring and summer, but worries are mounting that the recovery may sputter without additional relief.
Pelosi has largely assumed a hard line so far. But she’s never had a reputation for leaving large sums of money on the table and her tactical position — facing a White House and Senate controlled by Republicans — is not as strong as her demands might indicate.
However, Pelosi is hopeful Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis could help move negotiations forward.
“This kind of changes the dynamic because here,” Pelosi said in an interview Friday with MSNBC. “They see the reality of what we have been saying all along along. This is a vicious virus.”
The White House also seems far more eager for a deal than McConnell. Any compromise that could pass both the House and Senate is sure to alienate a large chunk of Senate Republicans. McConnell expressed support for the talks and another bill, but isn’t leaning into the effort. But some of his members appear worried that the deadlock is harming their reelection bids.
“I’d like to see another rescue package. We’ve been trying for months to get there,” McConnell told reporters Thursday. “I wish them well.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.