Agreement on a Covid-19 response bill remains unlikely

Christel Deskins

If you were paying attention when stimulus talks collapsed last month when millions of Americans were unemployed and when millions of American small businesses were weighing shuttering with an economy still in limbo — well, then you are pretty much caught up on where the negotiations are on a stimulus […]

If you were paying attention when stimulus talks collapsed last month when millions of Americans were unemployed and when millions of American small businesses were weighing shuttering with an economy still in limbo — well, then you are pretty much caught up on where the negotiations are on a stimulus bill.



Nancy Pelosi, Steven Mnuchin looking at the camera


© AP/Getty Images


There isn’t likely to be a sweeping stimulus bill two months from an election. The only firm deadline that could act as a catalyst for an agreement — the government funding deadline at the end of this month — isn’t likely going to spur any movement and that’s because lawmakers and the White House are being strategic that the two items should be kept separate.

The real deadline to watch

Government funding runs out in 22 days. And very importantly House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin have both signaled in the last several days they support a “clean” bill to keep the government funded. This is very significant.

That means — at this point– both sides agree it’s a bad idea to attach a stimulus bill negotiation to a straightforward spending bill. That’s good news for avoiding a government shutdown. But, don’t think this fight is over yet. There will be at least a bit more drama before we get to the finish line. Both Pelosi and Mnuchin have to agree on the length of the funding bill. That hasn’t happened yet. And, that gets into some thorny election year politics where Democrats would prefer to fund the government into next year in hopes that they’d have Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in the White House and a future bill would reflect their priorities. Meanwhile, Republicans have pitched a shorter-term bill that would just push off negotiations until sometime after the election.

Spending bills also have a tendency to attract other riders even when initially both sides agree to a “clean” bill. Even if a big stimulus bill isn’t included, expect some members to push for a few smaller provisions to be included. This is going to be the last major bill leaving the station and members have priorities they want to be included before their elections. Pelosi and Mnuchin can promise a “clean” bill now, but sometimes a “clean” bill is in the eye of the beholder. The more a bill looks like a Christmas tree, the tougher it will be to pass.

What to watch this week

As CNN’s Manu Raju, Phil Mattingly and Ted Barrett have reported on extensively, Republicans are expected to continue their internal deliberations to pass their own slimmed down stimulus proposal. This is an attempt to provide some cover for members running in tough elections from Iowa to Montana so they can go back home and argue they are trying to pass something. But the bill isn’t likely to spur any real negotiations. And despite working throughout the recess, leadership doesn’t yet have the votes they need to actually pass even a GOP bill.

One of the key holdups has been over a school choice grant provision being pushed by Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas. The provision is important to conservatives and without it, the bill could fail to garner the GOP support needed to pass. But, with it, some fiscal conservatives have balked at the price tag and more moderates argue that it shouldn’t be included in a bill that is so scaled back when other provisions that are more popular among the conference have been scrapped in the interest of keeping the proposal narrow. CNN has been told that at this point, it is still expected to be included.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced that he will introduce the new GOP pared back plan later Tuesday, acknowledging the bill does not have everything that Republicans want in it, but saying a vote could happen as early as this week.

“It does not contain every idea our party likes,” McConnell said in a statement. “I am confident Democrats will feel the same. Yet Republicans believe the many serious differences between our two parties should not stand in the way of agreeing where we can agree and making law that helps our nation.”

But aides warn that with every passing day, it becomes more and more unlikely that a GOP bill will get a vote in the Senate this week. Get ready to hear the phrase “family discussions” a lot as members choose their words carefully when they talk to reporters about the very real internal divisions within the GOP on this plan.

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