Maybe a coronavirus relief deal isn’t dead yet. While talks haven’t resumed, pressure is building — and now it’s coming from the White House, too.
After months of stalemate, President Trump on Wednesday urged his fellow Republicans to go for “much higher numbers” in a coronavirus bill and sought to blame Democrats for blocking additional stimulus checks, mischaracterizing their position. Seeming to suddenly realize that another aid package could boost his reelection chances, Trump tweeted:
“Democrats are ‘heartless’. They don’t want to give STIMULUS PAYMENTS to people who desperately need the money, and whose fault it was NOT that the plague came in from China. Go for the much higher numbers, Republicans, it all comes back to the USA anyway (one way or another!).”
Republicans have thus far resisted “much bigger numbers,” refusing to take up a $3.5 trillion bill passed by the House and failing to coalesce around a $1 trillion package put together by their own party. Senate Republicans came together last week in support of a smaller $300 billion package. But that legislation was blocked by Democrats, who said it was woefully insufficient. That legislation did not include the additional round of direct payments that Trump said he wants.
White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany reportedly said Wednesday that Trump was pressing for a bigger package than the one the Senate GOP proposed, with another round of stimulus checks added.
White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows told CNBC Wednesday that he is “probably more optimistic about the potential for a deal in the last 72 hours than I have been in the last 72 days.” Meadows also said that a $1.5 trillion proposal released Tuesday by the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group of House members, “at least provides a foundation for us to come back to the table.” Meadows added that a deal would have to happen within a week to 10 days and that he opposed the $500 billion provided for state and local government in the Problem Solvers’ proposal, saying he hoped the number would be closer to $250 billion to $300 billion.
Democrats seize on Trump’s tweet: Democratic leaders said they were encouraged by Trump’s tweet and hoped the administration would resume talks. “We look forward to hearing from the President’s negotiators that they will finally meet us halfway with a bill that is equal to the massive health and economic crises gripping our nation,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement.
But a group of House Democratic Committee leaders on Tuesday called the Problem Solvers proposal inadequate, meaning that Democrats will likely still press for more than $1.5 trillion in the next package.
Republicans cautious in their response: “I’m not sure what higher numbers, what that means. That probably needs to get translated for us,” Sen. John Thune of South Dakota told The Washington Post. “But I know kind of what the threshold is for what we can get Republican votes for in the Senate, and I think if the number gets too high anything that got passed in the Senate would be passed mostly with Democrat votes and a handful of Republicans, so it’s going to have to stay in sort of a realistic range.”
Another Republican, Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, reportedly said that the Problem Solvers’ proposal could provide a workable model since it included provisions that would raise or lower the total cost depending on the path of the pandemic.
Under the plan, spending could total about $1.3 trillion if the pandemic lets up more than expected or $2 trillion if it worsens.
“Maybe the escalator clause concept gives everybody a little something to brag about,” Blunt said, according to the Post. “There’s a deal there. I think it would be really a shame if we don’t figure out how to grab hold of it.”
Blunt reportedly acknowledged that any deal would have to come with a price tag higher than $1 trillion, a level that many Republicans say is unacceptably high. “I don’t think you’d get hardly any Republicans,” Sen. Mike Braun (R-IN) said. “And you’d lose a bunch of fiscal conservatives, if you did anything other than what we voted on for last week.”
What it all means: Trump’s tweet could open the door for more talks, but they also put renewed focus on GOP senators, raising the question of whether a larger plan can garner substantial support among Republicans. “Several Senate Republicans said their recent $300 billion offer was about the right amount, signaling doubt they could go higher,” the Post reports. And with Democrats still aiming for $2 trillion or so, the path to a bipartisan deal still isn’t all that much clearer today than it was last week.
The bottom line: Time is growing short. More intense pressure from Trump could change the dynamics, but that doesn’t seem likely, and some Republicans indicated Wednesday they aren’t likely to follow Trump’s advice. “So the president has his opinion, we have ours,” Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin said.