coronavirus stimulus

White House COVID-19 Outbreak Will Make or Break Stimulus Deal

Pelosi and Mnuchin are still talking as Trump tweets encouragement. Photo: Tom Williams/Mark Makela/Getty Images

Those of us who were closely watching the endless, slow-motion saga of negotiations over a major coronavirus-relief and stimulus package were, like everyone else, thrown for a loop by the news bomb of the president’s own COVID-19 diagnosis, which happened to break just as Nancy Pelosi and Steven Mnuchin had reportedly reached the endgame of their on-again, off-again talks. But the public figure who seemed most determined to keep the stimulus story in the news was President Trump himself, who tweeted this from the Walter Reed medical center:

If nothing else, this appeared to represent a very public set of instructions to Mnuchin to keep on talking. And although the House passed a Democratic stimulus bill last week and members went home to campaign for reelection, Pelosi has kept talking to the Treasury secretary, while making it clear that House members could be recalled on a day’s notice for a stimulus vote. So the supposedly hard deadlines everyone was talking about last week are proving to be quite flexible. Today, there are signs of further communications, per Pelosi’s staff:

An hour is pretty long for a symbolic gesture, and exchanging “paper” suggests we are at the point of draft final agreements or even legislative language. There is no particular intel on where they are on prior sticking points (particularly state and local assistance), but the numbers from both sides on that item were already slowly converging last week.

But while Pelosi has her troops prepared to return to Washington on short notice to pass a stimulus bill, the COVID-stricken Republican-controlled Senate may be a different matter. Mitch McConnell has called off Senate business until October 19, presumably to avoid additional infections (at least three Republican senators have tested positive so far with two more in quarantine). And unlike the House, the Senate has not instituted any system of large-scale proxies or remote voting to accommodate a pandemic.

One pressure point for a deal is the plight of the airline industry, which announced massive layoffs last week when the federal payroll support provided in the CARES Act ran out. Pelosi even said she would consider a stand-alone bill to deal with just that crisis. But if there’s no Senate around, that’s problematic as well.

Speaking of the Senate: If there’s a deal, McConnell would not only have to get his troops to return to Washington but would presumably be expected by the White House to crush or ignore any conservative backlash against the concessions Mnuchin has made. Ol’ Mitch would hate to be put in a position to join Chuck Schumer in whipping a stimulus bill through the Senate that is opposed by a majority of his conference. But it’s hard to imagine McConnell defying Trump, who clearly wants his signature on the estimated 160 million stimulus checks that a deal will definitely include, no matter what the other provisions involve. It’s entirely possible that some of the Senate conservatives who have been posturing against additional stimulus spending have already written Trump off and are transitioning back into the fiscally fanatical obstructionist role they played during the Obama-Biden administration. But if the beleaguered Trump is still tweeting away in support of a deal as the MAGA hordes hail him as the man who has walked through the valley of the shadow of death, his party will surely yield. It’s mostly just a matter of time.

White House COVID Outbreak Will Make or Break Stimulus Deal