Negotiators on ‘2-yard line’ on coronavirus economic rescue plan

Negotiators on ‘2-yard line’ on coronavirus economic rescue plan

Congressional and Trump administration negotiators signaled Tuesday that they are on track to clinch a bipartisan agreement on a nearly $2 trillion emergency stimulus package, though the timeline for final passage has likely slipped.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin are still expected to announce an agreement later Tuesday night under immense pressure from President Donald Trump, a dire economic outlook and the growing number of Americans losing their livelihoods amid the crisis.

While senators may not vote until Wednesday — despite initial hopes that the chamber could wrap things up by Tuesday evening — negotiators may be eager to at least announce a “deal in principle” before the markets open back up.

The Senate’s lead negotiators — Mnuchin, Schumer, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and White House legislative affairs director Eric Ueland — have spent most of Tuesday huddling behind closed doors as they finalized policy details and legislative text.

“The timeline is as soon as possible,” Ueland said leaving a more than hourlong meeting with McConnell, Mnuchin and a half-dozen GOP senators who have been heavily involved in the rescue package.

“We’re trying to finalize all the documents, going through a lot of complicated issues, and we’re making a lot of progress,” Mnuchin said, flanked by Rep. Mark Meadows, who was recently tapped as Trump’s next chief of staff.

Yet as the negotiations dragged on, Republican senators began to grow impatient and called on the president to step back from the negotiating table. “Pass the damn bill. Enough already!” tweeted Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of Trump’s top allies.

Schumer took to the Senate floor on Tuesday to declare that senators were “on the 2-yard line” and said there were no remaining disagreements that couldn’t be resolved over the next few hours.

“There are lots of good things here,” Schumer said. “In the last few days, we have made huge progress in achieving these goals.”

On the other side of the Capitol, Speaker Nancy Pelosi was also projecting confidence that a deal could be clinched on Tuesday. Pelosi, who is working from Washington while the vast majority of the House remains in their districts for recess, said she hopes to get unanimous consent on the bill — an agreement that would not only allow swift passage, but would also keep worried lawmakers away from the Capitol, where the virus has started spreading.

“I think there is real optimism that we could get something done in the next few hours,” she said during an interview on CNBC, saying Senate Democrats did a “great job” in the negotiations. Hours later, Pelosi told MSNBC that negotiators were “in the red zone,” in her latest of several media appearances on Tuesday as she sought to promote her own members’ priorities.

But Democratic and Republican leaders in the House don’t yet know whether it would be possible to muscle through a sweeping $2 trillion bill without a single objection from any of the chamber’s 430 lawmakers. In fact, the House GOP’s whip team held a conference call Tuesday evening where they acknowledged that there’s a strong possibility that a member will object to a unanimous consent agreement, according to a whip team source. But passing the rescue package by voice vote is another viable option and being discussed with the GOP conference, the source added.

Privately, many lawmakers say they don’t want to return to the House, which would risk further spreading the virus either while traveling to Washington or in the Capitol itself. Three members of Congress, including two House lawmakers, have tested positive for the coronavirus, as well as several staffers.

It would be nearly unprecedented, however, for the House to unanimously approve a package that large, with massive implications for nearly every sector of the economy. Several lawmakers, including freshman firebrand Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), have telegraphed at least some concerns with the latest version of the Senate talks.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told Democrats on a conference call Tuesday afternoon that he would prefer to vote by unanimous consent, but still doesn’t have timing on when a vote would be, according to people familiar with the discussions on the call.

Hoyer also said Congress would take up at least one more economic package to respond to the crisis, possibly appeasing some in the caucus who are pushing for still more in the current bill.

Pelosi added that she is still waiting to see final details on two issues — food stamps and pension shortfalls — and continues to watch out for potential GOP poison pills.

Still, the sudden burst of productivity between Senate negotiators — with both sides declaring they have moved beyond partisan politics — is a welcome shift from Monday, when a breakdown in talks and two failed procedural votes led to raucous exchanges and bitter sniping on the Senate floor.

Stocks soared as trading closed Tuesday afternoon, with the Dow Jones Industrial average surging more than 2,000 points, as investors eye an imminent deal.

“Today we can make all of the Washington drama fade away,” McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday morning.

One of the biggest question marks — like in all must-pass bills that require buy-in from both parties — is Trump.

Trump has sent mixed signals over whether he would support the deal, taking to Twitter on Monday night to harangue Democrats over their demands, but pushing for an immediate vote by Tuesday morning. “Congress must approve the deal, without all of the nonsense, today. The longer it takes, the harder it will be to start up our economy. Our workers will be hurt!” Trump tweeted.

Mnuchin, who has been running point on the negotiations with Schumer, said he was actively keeping the president in the loop. At one point Tuesday morning, Mnuchin said he had spoken with Trump twice already.

Much of the in-person negotiations have taken place between Schumer and Mnuchin, who met in person six times on Monday with the final meeting wrapping up around midnight.

By Tuesday afternoon, the biggest sticking points involved the food stamps program, a state stabilization fund and airline relief, according to lawmakers and other negotiators involved in the talks.

But Ueland said he would not characterize any of those issues “as a snag,” when asked about the food stamps program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

“We are just working through each issue as they arise and trying to find a resolution,” Ueland said.

One of the biggest problems from Monday has already been resolved, according to Democrats.

Schumer said he extracted a key concession from Mnuchin: strict oversight over a $500 billion fund designed to lend money to corporations that have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, according to three sources. Democrats had criticized the initial proposal as a “slush fund” that provided no mechanisms for accountability and allowed the Trump administration to withhold details about which companies received such loans.

Schumer also told Senate Democrats on a conference call Tuesday afternoon that he was “confident” he had secured $150 billion for a state and local fund and $130 billion for hospitals as part of the negotiations with Mnuchin, according to a person familiar with the call.

During her CNBC interview, Pelosi said the fund would be overseen by an inspector general and a congressional panel. And Schumer later said the bill includes “unemployment insurance on steroids,” giving Americans four months worth of their income if they are furloughed or lose their job.

If the House tries to pass the rescue package unanimously, leadership could encounter roadblocks in either party: Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), members of the so-called progressive squad, have already raised concerns with the emerging deal.

“The developments of this Senate relief bill are concerning,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted. “It seems to give a *HALF TRILLION DOLLARS* away to big corporations, w/ few worker protections.”

And in the GOP, some members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus have been notorious for grinding fast-moving spending bills to a halt; Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) threatened to hold up a package of corrections to another coronavirus relief bill just last week, though he eventually backed off.

During the House GOP’s whip team conference call, Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) emphasized to his colleagues that their best bet is to accept the Senate bill, given the progressive wish-list included in Pelosi’s stimulus bill.

Heather Caygle and Kyle Cheney contributed to this report.

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