Lawmakers are increasingly pessimistic about the chances of a quick agreement as negotiations over a fifth coronavirus relief bill go down to the wire.
Congress and the White House are barreling toward an end-of-the-day Friday deadline set by the main negotiators: House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiGOP chairmen hit back at accusation they are spreading disinformation with Biden probe Negotiators remain far apart on coronavirus deal as deadline looms Top federal official says more details coming on foreign election interference MORE (D-Calif.), Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerGroup of GOP senators back more money for airlines to pay workers GOP super PAC launching August ad blitz Schiff, Khanna call for free masks for all Americans in coronavirus aid package MORE (D-N.Y.), White House chief of staff Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsNegotiators remain far apart on coronavirus deal as deadline looms Trump dismisses legal questions on GOP nomination speech at White House Overnight Defense: Esper says 'most believe' Beirut explosion was accident, contradicting Trump | Trump later says 'nobody knows yet' what happened in Lebanon | 61-year-old reservist ID'd as fourth military COVID-19 death MORE and Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinNegotiators remain far apart on coronavirus deal as deadline looms On The Money: White House warns there's likely no deal with no agreement by Friday | More generous unemployment benefits lead to better jobs: study | 167K workers added to private payrolls in July Skepticism grows over Friday deadline for coronavirus deal MORE.
But despite weeks of near-daily meetings, the four are struggling to overcome steep political headwinds and policy differences to reach an agreement and have little progress to show so far, raising the odds that they will blow past their self-imposed timeline.
“We might not get a deal,” said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyNegotiators hit gas on coronavirus talks as frustration mounts GOP expects Senate to be in session next week without coronavirus deal Mnuchin: Negotiators no closer to coronavirus deal than a week ago MORE (R-Ala.). “There's a lot of pessimism here. ... Are we too far apart?”
Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiHillicon Valley: Facebook removes Trump post | TikTok gets competitor | Lawmakers raise grid safety concerns OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Court cancels shutdown of Dakota Access Pipeline | US could avoid 4.5M early deaths by fighting climate change, study finds | Officials warn of increasing cyber threats to critical infrastructure during pandemic Officials warn of increasing cyber threats to critical infrastructure during pandemic MORE (R-Alaska) told reporters it “doesn’t look like” there will be a deal this week. And asked if he was optimistic there would be a deal, Sen. Mike RoundsMarion (Mike) Michael RoundsTrump goes viral after mispronouncing Yosemite Congress has a shot at correcting Trump's central mistake on cybersecurity Chamber of Commerce endorses Ernst for reelection MORE (R-S.D.) responded “nope.”
In a sign that a breakthrough isn’t imminent, senators were told Thursday they could go home, but to plan to come back if an agreement is struck.
Asked if being allowed to leave town signaled that negotiators aren’t optimistic about meeting their Friday deadline, Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinDemocrats seek to exploit Trump-GOP tensions in COVID-19 talks The Hill's Campaign Report: Who will Biden pick to be his running mate? Don't count out Duckworth in Biden VP race MORE (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, said “it certainly does.”
“I hope that they call us back immediately, call me back tomorrow,” said Durbin.
Sen. Chris CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsThe Global Fragility Act provides the tools to address long-term impacts of COVID Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Thomas Isett Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Dr. Kate Broderick MORE (D-Del.), during an interview with MSNBC, said that odds of a deal by Friday are “at best 50-50.”
Though the Senate will technically be in session next week, members were not told when they should expect to return. The House left Washington last week, with House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerGOP expects Senate to be in session next week without coronavirus deal This week: Negotiators hunt for coronavirus deal as August break looms MORE (D-Md.) planning to give his members a similar 24-hour heads up.
Nonetheless, the decision puts lawmakers in a politically awkward public relations quagmire of largely leaving Washington, D.C., even as coronavirus cases climb across the country and the virus continues to devastate the nation’s economy.
A seasonally adjusted 1.2 million new people applied for unemployment benefits in the week ending Aug. 1, according to Labor Department data released Thursday. More than 31 million Americans remained on the jobless rolls through mid-July, and the July jobs report, which will be released Friday, is expected to show a sharp slowdown.
Despite both sides saying they would like to be able to reach an agreement, the talks face significant policy and political hurdles that make getting a deal on another coronavirus bill significantly harder than the previous four.
Republicans proposed a $1 trillion package that roughly 20 GOP senators, by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellNegotiators remain far apart on coronavirus deal as deadline looms States begin removing Capitol's Confederate statues on their own Skepticism grows over Friday deadline for coronavirus deal MORE’s (R-Ky.) estimate, do not support. Democrats, who have been significantly more unified, are lined up behind the $3.4 trillion bill that passed the House largely along party lines in May.
Even though negotiators have spent hours together, they haven’t even agreed on a top-line. Meadows said Wednesday night that they are “trillions” apart.
Both McConnell and Pelosi, in separate CNBC interviews Thursday, said they believed a deal would ultimately be reached, though they didn't commit to the Friday deadline.
But in subsequent press conferences and floor speeches, they painted a picture of negotiations that still remain far off from even an agreement in principle.
“What we’ve seen is plenty of talk, plenty of stalling from the Democratic leaders who have insisted on handling this themselves. No significant movement toward progress,” McConnell said.
That’s left Senate Republicans frustrated.
"I can't tell you how disappointed I am that more progress hasn't been made," said Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioHillicon Valley: Facebook removes Trump post | TikTok gets competitor | Lawmakers raise grid safety concerns Skepticism grows over Friday deadline for coronavirus deal ACLU targets Democrats, Republicans with mobile coronavirus billboards MORE (R-Fla.). "Frankly, I thought given everything that was going on eventually that fever would break.”
Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanSenators holding behind-the-scenes talks on breaking coronavirus package stalemate Overnight Defense: Pompeo pressed on move to pull troops from Germany | Panel abruptly scraps confirmation hearing | Trump meets family of slain soldier Pompeo, lawmakers tangle over Germany troop withdrawal MORE (R-Ohio) added, “I think we’re all a little frustrated right now because the negotiations on the next COVID-19 package seem to be at a standstill.”
But Democrats believe Republicans waited far too long to put together their own package and start negotiations.
“The problem is you know we should have been having these discussions weeks ago — not on the verge of unemployment ending and schools opening. Good grief,” said Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.). “They push you up against the wall and then say it's your fault.”
Republicans are also deeply divided about what they would accept in a package, with McConnell and the administration sending, at times, mixed signals.
“It’s really hard for us to negotiate when we’re united and they’re fundamentally fractured. I think the president has to sort of step in here and make a decision about whether he wants a deal or not,” said Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyDemocrats want Biden to debate Trump despite risks Connecticut senators call for Subway to ban open carry of firearms Democrats optimistic about chances of winning Senate MORE (D-Conn.).
Trump is warning that he could take executive action over the weekend on areas like unemployment insurance, eviction moratoriums, student loans and a payroll tax cut if negotiators aren’t able to get a deal.
Meadows, entering the latest round of talks on Thursday, questioned why they would continue talking with congressional Democrats if they aren't able to even agree to the price tag for the bill.
"I think if we don't reach a top-line number it becomes very little incentive to have further conversations. At this point, they're still at $3.4 trillion and going north. At some point, compromise has to have a dollar sign in front of it," he said. "At some point you have to understand that they're not willing to make a deal."
Democratic leadership, during a joint press conference, dug in on their push to continue the $600 per week federal unemployment benefit, which expired last week. Republicans have called continuing it a non-starter but haven’t agreed on what it should be replaced with, a division that Democrats believe gives them leverage.
"We have said that we're going to have the $600," Pelosi said. "And they know that we want the $600."
Pelosi had told reporters after a round of negotiations on Wednesday that she thought they would get a deal, comparing it to there being a “light at the end of the tunnel.” But tipping her hand to the likelihood that they miss the Friday deadline, she said, “how long that tunnel is remains to be seen.”
On Thursday, Pelosi extended her metaphor, warning that the light might not be a deal but could be another round of economic pain caused by the coronavirus.
“We have been making some progress, proceeding in a positive way,” she said. “But we have to move quickly — more quickly — because the light at that end of the tunnel may be the freight train of the virus coming at us, if we do not act.”