Time and logistics have been steadily lowering the already daunting odds against a second major COVID-19 stimulus measure (on the scale of the March CARES Act) prior to Election Day, despite regular communications between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Trump administration negotiator Steven Mnuchin. On Sunday, October 18, in media appearances and a letter to House Democrats, Pelosi set a final, final deadline, as The Wall Street Journal reports:
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) told the White House it had until Tuesday to reach a deal with Democrats, or legislation to provide additional coronavirus relief to struggling households and businesses couldn’t be passed before the election.
“That depends on the administration,” Mrs. Pelosi said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week,” when asked about whether a deal could still be struck. The 48-hour deadline “only relates to if we want to get it done before the election, which we do,” she said.
If Tuesday evening passes without reaching an agreement, negotiations could continue, but would be unlikely to produce sweeping relief legislation worth trillions of dollars within the next two weeks, an aide to Mrs. Pelosi said. The election could create new political uncertainties that could make an agreement even harder to reach after Nov. 3.
Mixed signals on the possibility of a last-minute deal are everywhere. In her letter to House Democrats, Pelosi says, “I am optimistic we can reach agreement before the election,” but then goes on to list a host of outstanding differences, mentioning Democratic priorities like an extension of the Census count and election assistance, in addition to the better-known divisions on state and local government aid and a COVID-19 liability shield. The president’s public enthusiasm for a “big, beautiful” stimulus deal continues to grow, to the point at which he’s teasing Pelosi for her alleged parsimony:
President Trump said Sunday that Pelosi, who passed a $3.4 trillion stimulus bill in May and a $2.2 trillion bill this month, is being too frugal now. “I want to do it at a bigger number than she wants,” he said on the tarmac in Carson City, Nevada.
This is the same man, of course, who has repeatedly denounced the very idea of state and local government assistance as an effort to “take care of Democrat failed, high crime, Cities and States” and is obviously giving Mnuchin his marching orders. It’s entirely possible that both Pelosi and Trump are making positive noises strictly in order to set up an expression of disappointment and anger if the clock strikes midnight with no deal. But as has been the case all along, the president needs a deal for electoral purposes much more than Pelosi does, since she can point to two bills already passed by the House as illustrating her caucus’s determination to address the now-worsening public-health and economic situation. In particular, Trump has never wavered in his lust for a second round of $1,200 stimulus “checks” for the roughly 160 million who received such assistance under the CARES Act, even though we have reached the point where all he would get from it is renewed hope that help is on the way.
As usual, Mitch McConnell is adding his own devious touch to the murky situation by moving toward Senate action on a second “skinny stimulus” bill to help Republicans pretend they are the ones avid to provide relief. We haven’t seen the legislative language just yet, but the second “skinny” bill mostly differs from the first by including some sort of stimulus checks, perhaps with “skinnier” dollar amounts or eligibility than the first round. This whole exercise is on a completely separate track from the Pelosi-Mnuchin talks, and Trump is confident (as am I) that if a bipartisan deal is struck, just enough Senate Republicans will cooperate to make it happen —despite all the heavy publicity being given to those tough, brave conservatives who are tired of all this profligate spending and are allegedly ready to defy Trump after four years of craven obedience to his every whim. Indeed, McConnell has already admitted he will allow a vote on any deal, which means it could pass with unanimous Democratic votes and a smattering of Republicans:
It’s possible Trump will decide (or has already decided) that the political value of a stimulus deal is offset by the risk of dividing or distracting his “base” just before voters decide his fate. It wouldn’t be the first or second or ten thousandth time he has given misleading indications of his intentions on COVID-19 policy. But this week the alarms will go off, and we’ll find out who wants a deal badly enough to make it happen.