Mnuchin downbeat on economic relief talks with Pelosi as clock runs out ahead of election

Source: By Erica Werner and Jeff Stein, Washington Post • Posted: Sunday, October 25, 2020

Treasury secretary says Pelosi has ‘dug in’ and ‘significant differences’ remain; Pelosi still voicing optimism

President Trump speaks on the phone with the leaders of Sudan and Israel as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, left, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, White House senior adviser Jared Kushner and national security adviser Robert O'Brien, applaud in the Oval Office of the White House on Friday. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin delivered a downbeat assessment Friday about his economic stimulus talks with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), saying the speaker had “dug in” and “significant differences” remain.

Mnuchin’s comments at a White House event came at the end of a week Pelosi had established as an informal deadline for getting agreement on an approximately $2 trillion spending bill in order for legislation to pass before the election. There was no agreement in sight, although Pelosi insisted that she remained optimistic.

“You have to be optimistic in a negotiation,” the speaker said on MSNBC.

Later in the day, Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill wrote on Twitter that the Democratic leader and the Treasury secretary would “speak again once additional progress is made.” He said staff-level work would continue through the weekend.

Mnuchin said that if Pelosi wanted to compromise, they could get a deal. Pelosi said essentially the same thing about President Trump.

For his part, Trump repeated his accusation that Pelosi just wants to “bail out” poorly run blue states, even though governors of both parties have sought additional federal assistance. Trump accused Pelosi of trying to put off a deal until after the election in order to score political points, which he predicted would backfire.

“I’d like to see the people get the money,” Trump said at the event. “I don’t think she wants the people to get the money before the election. I don’t think that’s a good point for her.”

The finger-pointing came as multiple factors aligned against the possibility of congressional action ahead of the election, despite multiple Federal Reserve officials warning that more fiscal stimulus is needed to boost the recovery. Millions remain out of work, reliant on food banks or at risk of eviction.

Congress has not passed any relief legislation since a $3 trillion burst of bipartisanship at the outset of the pandemic in the spring. Many of the programs approved then — including enhanced unemployment benefits, payroll support for the airline industry and small business assistance — have since expired.

But Senate Republicans do not support a giant new spending bill along the lines of what Pelosi and Mnuchin have been discussing, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has given no indication he would bring such a bill to the floor before the election. Instead, he is focused on confirming Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, and then sending members home to campaign for reelection.

Earlier this week, McConnell tried to advance a much smaller $500 billion bill on the Senate floor, but Democrats blocked it. Senate Republicans have been chafing at the compromises Mnuchin has been making in order to strike a much bigger deal with Pelosi.

Pelosi said the key to a deal would be Trump applying pressure to Senate Republicans, something he’s not yet done in any significant way.

“The fact is that the president has been back and forth: ‘Stop the negotiations,’ ‘Oh, I want more money than Nancy,’ ‘I hope she’ll agree with me,’” Pelosi said. “But he has to talk to the Senate Republicans.”

At the same time, a number of House Democrats are reluctant to come back into session to vote on a deal that’s not going to pass the Senate before the election, a viewpoint Pelosi discussed with House Democratic leaders in a meeting Thursday afternoon, according to a person familiar with the discussion who recounted it on condition of anonymity. The conversation was first reported by Politico.

All these factors suggest that the soonest Congress is likely to act would be in the “lame duck” session following the election. Lawmakers will be facing a Dec. 11 government shutdown deadline and will have to pass a new spending bill. It’s possible some coronavirus relief measures could be attached.

“I don’t think Speaker Pelosi has any intention of doing a deal before the election but hopefully we can do one shortly thereafter,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told reporters Friday.

Despite months of on-again off-again talks, Mnuchin and Pelosi have been unable to get agreement on some critical issues, including the level of support for state and local governments, and liability protections for businesses sought by the administration but opposed by Democrats.

Pelosi has been touting progress toward agreement on a national strategic testing plan demanded by Democrats — but she suggested Friday that even that had not been entirely finalized.

A variety of White House officials appeared in public Friday to downplay odds of a stimulus deal ahead of the election.

“The ball is not moving much right now,” Larry Kudlow, the president’s chief economic adviser, told Bloomberg TV. “It’s very difficult. The clock is ticking . . . Even if you had a deal in the next few days, you have to go through committee print and have votes in House and Senate. It’s not going to be easy.”

White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany accused Democrats of being “fundamentally unserious” and said the latest Democratic offer included immigration provisions that are non-starters for the administration.