Congressional leaders are barely talking. Renegade centrists are trying to cut a deal that Republicans don’t like. And the president is predominantly focused on overturning an election that he lost.
It’s the latest evidence Washington is broken: at the peak of the worst public health crisis in a century, the White House and Congress are struggling to deliver another round of relief. And time in the lame duck is quickly running out.
“Everybody kind of assumes that we’ll get back here next week and all these efforts that are going on will run into kind of the proverbial brick wall,” said Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.). “Sometimes it doesn’t look that promising but we still have a week and a half to go. Maybe we’ll be here at Christmas.”
The speaker, too, sounded downbeat Thursday when she left the door open for late-December negotiations: “We have to have a bill and we cannot go home without it,” Nancy Pelosi told reporters. ”But we can’t go before the package is ready and the votes are there.”
“We’ve been here after Christmas, you know,” she added. Meanwhile, it was unclear if the government might shut down briefly this weekend amid Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-Ky.) resistance to a defense bill.
It’s still two weeks before Christmas, plenty of time in congressional parlance to roll together a $1.4 trillion year-end spending bill with hundreds of billions more in Covid aid. Maybe, somehow the bipartisan group finds success and bridges partisan chasms on money for local governments and shielding businesses from litigation. Or perhaps party leaders come out of their shells and cobble together a deal at the last moment.
Congressional aides in both parties said leadership staffers have been talking all along, even though it’s been a week since Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have talked — their first meaningful conversation on the issue in weeks — and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and McConnell have had no recent specific conversation about coronavirus. Pelosi herself bristled at Republicans who hoped she’d talk to McConnell: “Tell them to go meet with McConnell,” she quipped.
Top lawmakers can’t even agree on where to start negotiations, much less how to finish them. Pelosi and Schumer continue to promote the bipartisan Senate talks but senior Republicans have coalesced around the White House’s $916 billion bill.
On Wednesday, McConnell’s staff informed House and Senate leadership staffers that the bipartisan group’s attempts to marry $160 billion in state and local aid and a temporary liability shield — major sticking points in the ongoing talks — probably won’t fly with most of the GOP, according to a senior Democrat familiar with the discussion.
It marked a major blow to ongoing bipartisan discussions. And Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), a leader of those talks, suggested Congress may need to punt disagreements on liability and local government aid until next year.
And lawmakers in both parties continue to squabble internally about what they should and shouldn’t accept in a deal.
On a call with a group of House Democrats on Thursday, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) pressed leaders to bar President Donald Trump’s name from appearing on any direct payment checks. Several top Democrats pushed back, including House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) who said: “Steve, we gotta have the votes in the Senate,” according to several sources on the call.
People are getting impatient: Some House Democrats have privately suggested they attach the bipartisan proposal to the omnibus next week even if Republicans don’t agree, effectively jamming the Senate just before the government funding deadline.
“People love to blame the Democrats, but right now, the White House and the Senate are on different pages on what they’re calling for,” said Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), a swing-district Democrat who’s been critical of her party’s strategy on Covid relief. “There’s blame to go around.”
“We tried everything that had any remote possibility of success. We tried having Secretary [Steven] Mnuchin do the negotiating,” countered Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.). “Many of the Democrats screamed, ‘Well McConnell needs to be involved. Now McConnell is involved and they’re still upset.”
Others are just ready for party leaders to cut the posturing and negotiate.
“What you make of it is you’re probably not going to get a deal until people get together,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.). “The people who should be doing the negotiation are Mitch and Chuck.”
The most movement in recent days has been among the bipartisan senators trying to cut a $908 billion deal. A congressional aide said the group has reached agreement on distributing the money for local governments using a “needs based formula” and is “moving forward” on liability.
But they still hadn’t produced legislative text by Thursday afternoon, struggling to resolve Democratic opposition to liability reform or the broader Republican resistance to $160 billion for local governments. Another issue has popped up recently: a disagreement over funding for private schools, said a person familiar with the discussions.
And the exasperation is palpable, even within that bipartisan group that’s been privately working for weeks to force their leadership to a compromise.
“People are certainly going to assume [that] government is broken,” said Rep. Denver Riggleman (R-Va.), who has been part of those bipartisan talks and was defeated in a GOP primary battle earlier this year. “There’s a frustration and an anger in the electorate that’s starting to ripple through the United States. It’s time for us to do something to get off our damn asses.”
Democrats have latched onto the bipartisan talks as the only way out of the impasse. And they say McConnell has refused to get in the room for bipartisan negotiations, whether it’s with Mnuchin and Pelosi, Schumer or rank-and-file senators.
“Schumer’s been begging to negotiate with McConnell for half a year. I just think this bipartisan proposal is our only realistic train,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), referring to repeated entreaties from the minority leader. “At some point I have to believe what I see from McConnell and everything I’ve seen thus far makes it look like he’s trying to go home with nothing happening.”
Republicans believe it’s unrealistic to think a Senate “gang” can force a solution to such a complicated political quagmire. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said McConnell’s arguments of dropping liability reform and state and local is the only way forward: “If they’re not going to do what we really want, then we’re not going to do what they really want.”
Many House Democrats — who passed an initial $3 trillion Covid stimulus package back in May — are in disbelief that their leaders have fought almost exactly the same fight for eight months. The last time Congress approved any substantial relief was in April.
“This chamber has passed a lot of Covid packages, none of them seem to get through,” said Rep. Lou Correa (D-Calif.), whose district has a nearly one-in-three coronavirus positivity rate. “We’ve been waiting months and months for something. I’m of the opinion that something is better than nothing.”
Before the bipartisan lawmakers pressed their $908 billion plan, Pelosi negotiated with Mnuchin on and off for months to no avail. The two made one last attempt at a deal in October but those talks, like all the others, fell apart just before the election. There was some hope that a deal would come together quickly after Nov. 3.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) said he remembers campaigning for Biden in the late fall and confidently telling supporters that Congress would approve some form of stimulus. He now concedes that in hindsight, that sentiment was “stupid.”
The senior Missouri Democrat, whose family spent time in public housing growing up, is flummoxed by the lack of urgency as unemployment aid and eviction protections are set to expire at month’s end.
“Maybe we don’t have enough people in here who have ever been poor,” he said.
Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.