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Pandemic relief talks inch ahead, but McConnell is resistant

UPDATED: Wed., Oct. 21, 2020

By Andrew Taylor Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Negotiations on a COVID-19 relief bill have taken a modest step forward, though time is running out and President Donald Trump’s most powerful Senate ally is pressing the White House not to move ahead right now.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told fellow Republicans that he has warned the White House not to divide GOP lawmakers by sealing a $2 trillion relief deal with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., before the Nov. 3 election, even as he publicly said he would scheduled any such agreement for a vote.

McConnell made his remarks Tuesday during a private Senate Republican lunch, according to three people familiar with his comments. The three were not authorized to public discuss the closed session and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The White House said negotiations between Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin continue to bring modest progress, and the two were to talk again Wednesday. But veteran lawmakers said there was too much work to do and not enough time to do it to enact a relief bill by Election Day.

“We obviously want to have a deal by Nov. 3,” Pelosi said Wednesday on SiriusXM radio. “That really is going to be up to whether the president can convince Mitch McConnell to do so.”

McConnell, R-Ky., said the GOP-controlled Senate was not buying the need for legislation as large as Trump wanted. McConnell appears worried that an agreement between Pelosi and Mnuchin would drive a wedge between Republicans, forcing them to choose whether to support a Pelosi-blessed deal with Trump that would violate conservative positions they’ve stuck with for months.

McConnell said if such a bill passed the Democratic-run House with Trump’s blessing “we would put it on the floor of the Senate.” Those public remarks came after the private session with fellow Republicans.

White House chief of staff Mark Meadows told Fox Business Network on Wednesday that “we’re still apart. Still a number of issues to work on, but the last 24 hours have moved the ball down the field.”

But Senate Republicans were pushing ahead with a procedural vote on a virus proposal with a net cost of about $500 billion. It does not include the $1,200 direct payments that are so important to Trump. Democrats are sure to block the measure as they did last month and Trump himself says it’s not enough.

Trump is hoping for an agreement before the election, eager to announce another round of payments going out under his name, but it’s increasingly clear that time has pretty much run out. If he wins, Trump is promising relief. If he loses, it’s unclear whether his enthusiasm for delivering COVID-19 aid will be as strong.

“I think Democrats would want to want until the new president is sworn in and do it then and I think Republicans probably would say — unless the economy would take a bad turn between now and let’s say Dec. 1, and there doesn’t seem to be a sign that’s going to happen — but we’d say the economy’s taking care of it,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa.

But Pelosi said she believes McConnell “might not mind doing it after the election.”

Recent history suggests that any lame-duck congressional session in the event of a Trump loss would not produce much, though pressure for virus relief is sure to keep building regardless of the election outcome.

Pelosi and Mnuchin appear to remain at odds over refundable tax credits for the working poor and families with children, the size of a Democratic-sought aid package for state and local governments and a liability shield for businesses and other organizations against lawsuits over their COVID-19 preparations.

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