Maybe this will turn out to be one of those “darkest before the dawn” moments, but as Trump administration officials and Democratic leaders working on the next coronavirus relief package entered what was expected to be a lengthy negotiating session Thursday afternoon, the prospects of a deal looked dim at best.
Democratic leaders and the Trump administration remain trillions of dollars apart in their proposals for the relief package, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows told reporters Wednesday, and the tone of the negotiators turned sharply more acrimonious on Thursday.
Asked during a morning appearance on CNBC why she couldn’t reach across the aisle to “give a huge chunk of money to the people who are disenfranchised, to the minorities who want so badly to stay in business and can't,” Pelosi tore into Republicans: “Perhaps you mistook them for somebody who gives a damn, for what you just described. That's the problem,” she said. “See the thing is, they don't believe in governance. And that requires some acts of governance to do that."
Pelosi had suggested Wednesday that there’s “light at the end of the tunnel” but the length of the tunnel remained to be seen, but she put a more ominous spin on that metaphor in a Thursday press briefing with reporters. "The light at the end of the tunnel may be the freight train of the virus coming at us if we do not contain it,” she said.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) blamed Democrats for blocking a short-term extension last week of the federal unemployment benefits but told CNBC that he thinks a deal will happen. “There is a desire on the part of both the Democrats and the Republicans — at least most of the Republicans, not every single one — that we get to an outcome because the economy does need an additional boost until we get the vaccine,” McConnell said. “Exactly when that deal comes together I couldn’t tell you, but I think it will at some point in the near future.”
Pelosi takes a hard line: The speaker hasn’t budged off her insistence that she’s not interested in a short-term deal and that enhanced unemployment benefits of $600 a week should be renewed. Pelosi “remains almost entirely unyielding in her demands,” Politico says, and Democrats have been unified in their position. "Why dismantle a program that almost all economists say is working and put something new in its place that will take months to go into effect?" Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer asked Thursday.
Trump again threatens to use executive orders: President Trump sure didn’t sound like he was expecting a deal to be reached. He said Thursday he was preparing to sign executive orders as soon as Friday aimed at addressing his priorities for coronavirus relief. “Upon departing the Oval Office for Ohio, I’ve notified my staff to continue working on an Executive Order with respect to Payroll Tax Cut, Eviction Protections, Unemployment Extensions, and Student Loan Repayment Options,” he tweeted.
The threat of executive action was seen as the administration’s attempt to exert some leverage to get Democrats to move toward an agreement, and there are questions about whether the executive orders (aside from one on the eviction moratorium) would be legal. But in a sign that Trump might really move ahead with the orders, The Washington Post reports that the administration asked federal agencies to identify all unspent money from the $2 trillion Cares Act passed in March and that the White House was trying to determine whether that money could be redirected toward temporary unemployment benefits or the eviction moratorium.
Pelosi on CNBC encouraged Trump to extend the eviction moratorium but added that legislative action to provide money for rental and housing assistance was still needed since a moratorium would be of limited use if people ultimately still can’t pay their bills. Others also remain concerned that executive orders would be too limited in scope to deliver the aid the economy needs.
What’s next: The negotiators were meeting at 5 p.m. ET. But senators are headed home and Politico notes that many don’t expect to be back in the Capitol next week. The House, meanwhile, is out next week. “Both can be called back,” Politico says, “but when you send ’em home, it’s usually because action is far off.”
A reminder of what’s at stake: Enhanced unemployment benefits for millions of Americans expired last week, and a moratorium on evictions also ended last month. The Paycheck Protection Program of small-business loans is set to expire on Saturday. Meanwhile, first-time claims of unemployment benefits have topped 1 million for 20 straight weeks (see more below). Many economists now expect the economy to suffer as households pull back on spending.
“Talks between Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and the two Democratic leaders have turned into a giant game of chicken even as millions of Americans face growing financial hardships and the U.S. economy continues to stumble along,” Politico reported Wednesday evening.
Right now, it looks like there are no winners in this game.