Those trying to follow the perpetually on-again off-again progress toward a second major stimulus package, perhaps in hopes of receiving that second $1,200 stimulus check, must find the whole thing a frustrating mess. Just yesterday there was a glimmer of hope as the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus unveiled a compromise proposal that included the highly popular second check and split the difference between the two parties on many areas of disagreement (for example: $500 billion in state and local government assistance, as compared to $915 billion in the Democratic HEROES Act and the $150 billion provided in the CARES Act enacted in March). But the initial reactions have been almost entirely negative. Nobody in a position of power among House Democrats is buying it, as Roll Call reports:
One sign of how entrenched the stalemate has become was that a $1.5 trillion proposal offered by the 50-member bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus was quickly dismissed despite offering compromises for several key sticking points in the negotiations.
The Hill says nothing’s shaking in the Republican-controlled Senate, either:
Senators say the chances of a group of centrist Republicans and Democrats coming together on a compromise coronavirus relief package is slim to none because of pressure from the leadership of their respective parties.
Centrist senators who would ordinarily be expected to be having sideline negotiations say there’s been little activity despite the apparent collapse of talks between the White House and Democratic leaders.
They say that’s because leadership on both sides of the aisle have frozen the possibility of rump-group talks less than two months before elections in which future control of the Senate will be decided.
So, posturing aside, what exactly is preventing Congress and the White House from hammering out an agreement on much-needed coronavirus relief? Here are some of the basic realities underlying the stalemate and its possible (though by no means probable) resolution:
The Senate Is Irrelevant
All the back-and-forth between Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer over the stimulus and all the talk and recent activity over McConnell’s “skinny stimulus” bill are largely a sideshow. Early on McConnell ceded negotiation rights to the White House, and focused on the twin challenges of giving vulnerable senators some sort of partisan bill to support while placating the 20-or-so hardcore conservatives who think the federal government has already done enough in the way of COVID-19 relief and stimulus. That’s why the “skinny” proposal moved away from, not toward, the Democratic position, quickly abandoning the more substantial HEALS Act (which among other things included a second stimulus check) that congressional Republicans released in conjunction with the White House in late July.
Senate Democrats, who have only one truly vulnerable member up for reelection this year (Alabama’s Doug Jones) are determined to stay in lock step with Nancy Pelosi, whose iron control of the House represents the strongest Democrats asset in negotiations. If Democrats can reach a deal with the White House, Democratic senators will supply most of the votes needed to get it through that chamber, and no matter what the fiscal hardliners say, McConnell isn’t going to block a Trump-blessed deal.
Pelosi Wants a Deal Before Holding Another Vote
It’s almost certain that the Democrats in the Problem Solvers Caucus got some sort of go-ahead from Speaker Pelosi before releasing their proposal, so she’s not averse to some ultimate compromise. But she made it very clear during a Wednesday TV appearance that the way to a compromise is via a deal with the White House that can stick. Per The Hill:
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Wednesday said that she has no intention of staging a vote on emergency coronavirus legislation if it lacks the bipartisan support to win President Trump’s signature.
“We could put a bill on the floor, but we want to put a bill on the floor that will become law,” Pelosi said in an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program.
So she’s not going to emulate McConnell in staging “messaging” votes on a new partisan bill, or a compromise proposal, or popular “piecemeal” items that both parties support. She has the advantage of having already passed the HEROES Act back in May. That’s the base Democratic proposal until a deal, or something close to a deal, emerges.
Trump Wants a Deal Before Facing Voters
President Trump seems to understand that his increasingly desperate reelection bid is being hampered by the perception that he’s moved slowly and ineffectively on all matters related to COVID-19. His efforts to act unilaterally via executive actions may have helped a bit, but the funds he tapped for an extended federal unemployment insurance supplement are running out, and his public suggestion that he might find a way to pay for a second stimulus check without Congress is likely a bluff or the expression of a sincere but unrealistic wish.
Trump obviously would prefer not to look like he’s bending to Pelosi’s will or splitting with his most fervent congressional supporters, and it’s entirely possible he won’t. But the man who loves to boast about his deal-making prowess can’t be happy about appearing helpless when he could instead be signing stimulus checks voters will receive just before November 3. He may also privately wonder whether some of those tough-talking GOP fiscal hawks may have already mentally shifted into a nay-saying Biden administration posture, leaving him for dead.
Democrats Think They Have the Upper Hand, and Can Wait to Win
Aside from Democratic control of the House, the Donkey Party’s big advantage in this stalemate is the general belief that an electoral wind is at their back. That means, as noted above, that Trump and perhaps even some congressional Republicans may get frantic for a deal as November approaches. But it also means there’s a decent chance that if they wait for January they can get everything they want with Joe Biden in the White House and Democrats controlling both congressional chambers. That doesn’t mean they’ll reject additional negotiations or even a compromise deal, but it does mean they can be patient, which happens to be a Nancy Pelosi specialty, as Politico Playbook notes in explaining her stimulus strategy:
[T]he vast, vast majority of Dems are with PELOSI in her plan to hold out for a better deal. In her thinking, REPUBLICANS are going to come back to the table, and the way to get them back is to stay firm and not flinch. She’s done this before – and her detractors have not.
Pelosi has sent another signal by indicating the House will remain formally in session until a stimulus deal is reached (though members will be free to return to the campaign trail knowing they will be recalled to Washington to vote on a deal if one emerges). But at present, she seems determined to stare Trump down and let the chips — and the checks — fall where they may.