The week started with a self-imposed deadline, and it appears it will end without a stimulus deal.
After fits and starts, the negotiations between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, the White House’s chief negotiator, have hit another roadblock with aides behind the scenes telling CNN that while the prospects for a deal Monday were always slim, they are growing harder to imagine now.
Bottom Line: The chances of passing a stimulus bill out of the House before the November 3 Election Day drop to virtually zero if a real, substantive deal doesn’t come together by Friday night and isn’t in writing by the weekend. And there are absolutely no indications that the legislative work that needs to happen to make this real is happening.
As Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Dick Shelby, an Alabama Republican, put it to reporters Thursday, “It could always be a miracle, but not very many around here.”
As multiple GOP aides told CNN on Thursday, House committees might be reaching to lay out their priorities, but no one is actually sitting in a room or getting on the phone and hashing out the finer points of this bill right now. In other words, bipartisan, bicameral conversations aren’t driving anything right now.
The tea leaves: After several days in a row of talks between Pelosi and Mnuchin, Pelosi’s spokesman gave no readout of any conversations for Thursday. Pelosi said they were trading paper back and forth, but with massive sticking points still outstanding, the principles don’t appear to have had their regular afternoon phone call.
The lame duck
No matter how artificial of a deadline it was in reality, Election Day has loomed large over these stimulus talks.
The election is what pushed President Donald Trump back to the negotiating table and its imminence has brought urgency back to what had been an impenetrable showdown. Negotiating a deal now would help Americans who badly need an influx of cash for struggling businesses, money for rent and increased benefits from Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP, or food stamps.
And a deal could boost incumbents on both sides who could argue they delivered for constituents. Most Republicans in the Senate have been very clear that anything over $1.5 trillion is too much money for them, but a few members up for reelection had been careful to dismiss anything out of hand. Still, if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was going to have a hard time getting 13 Republican votes – the bare minimum needed if Democrats in the chamber united behind a plan – ahead of the election when the electoral futures of his members might be boosted by a deal, he is likely going to have an impossible time getting 13 after an election.
If Republicans keep the Senate and the White House, they are likely emboldened to stand firm against a massive bill brokered by Mnuchin, someone they view as far closer to Pelosi politically than he should be for a Republican Cabinet official. If they lose, GOP lawmakers could be even less likely to be motivated to swallow the tenets of fiscal conservatism and vote for the bill. And let’s not forget, if Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden beats Trump, the current President could decide a deal isn’t what he wants after all.
Republicans could drag out the negotiations throughout the lame duck, denying Democrats the opportunity to clear the deck before Biden is sworn in with his own lengthy, legislative agenda.
The point is none of this is going to get easier after the election. It gets harder.
What’s left to negotiate?
- State and local funding and how the money can be used
- Liability protections
- Testing, tracing funding
- Unemployment insurance
- Education funding
Pelosi said Thursday that there still wasn’t a deal on several major sticking points. It’s the tell that these negotiations over the last week may be positive, but they aren’t yielding an outcome. The topics that consumed hours-long meetings in July and August still haven’t been dealt with. Both sides remain divided over how much education funding is needed, how to structure state and local funding, how to divvy out money for contact tracing and testing so it is equitable and how much money should go to unemployment insurance benefits.
On liability insurance there’s been no resolution. Democrats have been pushing to increase Occupational Safety and Health Administration requirements for safe working conditions amid Covid-19 in exchange for liability protections, but CNN is told those talks are ongoing and haven’t yielded an agreement. And, despite the fact that Democratic committee staff in the House have reached out to Senate counterparts to lay out priorities, no substantive talks are happening at the committee level across the Capitol.
Republican state of mind
House and Senate Republicans are more in the dark in these negotiations than they have been. GOP leaders are getting periodic updates, but nitty gritty details about the talks aren’t available in real time.
Rank-and-file members have absolutely no belief that a deal is imminent and even those who were among the most optimistic about the prospects for a resolution have begun saying out loud that they are convinced Pelosi won’t cut a deal ahead of an election and give the President any semblance of a victory to run on.
Pelosi had been telling Mnuchin she wanted a vote ahead of the election, but that started to change Thursday afternoon. In short, the beginning of the week, Republican aides and members were nervous that an outcome could result in a total capitulation of what they wanted in the negotiations. Now, no one thinks that Pelosi and Mnuchin are close enough that it’s a real threat at all.
“There are no particulars on anything,” Shelby said. “A lot of talk, no action.”