28 November 2020

Coronavirus Stimulus Vote Could Come After Election Day, Negotiators Say

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WASHINGTON—White House officials and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi opened the door to passing a coronavirus relief package after the election, a signal that time and political will has likely run out to enact legislation before then.

Mrs. Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Wednesday reported more progress on a potential $2 trillion aid agreement. But even if they strike a deal before Nov. 3, legislation would face vanishing prospects of quickly becoming law, thanks to both the tight calendar and hardened opposition in the GOP-controlled Senate.

Still, in the waning days of an election season in which both the White House and Senate are up for grabs, neither party wanted to give up on monthslong discussions over providing relief for households and businesses still struggling during the pandemic.

“I’m optimistic that there will be a bill. It’s a question of, is it in time to pay the November rent, which is my goal, or is it going to be shortly thereafter and retroactive?” Mrs. Pelosi, a California Democrat, said Wednesday on MSNBC.

Larry Kudlow, a top White House economic adviser, said on CNBC Wednesday that negotiators were “running out of time, at least between now and the election” and that wrapping up work on a relief package in a lame-duck session, after the election but before the next administration begins, “could be a possibility.”

Punting a relief bill until after the presidential election would likely imperil its passage for months, since the election could change the political calculus. If Democratic nominee Joe Biden wins the White House, Democrats would have an incentive to wait until he is in office, where then they would have increased leverage to push for a larger bill, with more Democratic policy provisions. The dynamics are more uncertain if Mr. Trump wins re-election, but he is expected to be less motivated to strike an agreement without an election on the horizon.

“The lame duck is a really hard time to get much done—in any lame duck,” Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, a member of Senate GOP leadership, said Wednesday. “I don’t see why this one would be different.”

White House chief of staff Mark Meadows acknowledged the difficulty a deal would face after Nov. 3. “I don’t think our chances get better after [the] election,” he said on Fox News.

Mr. Meadows said the White House had agreed to roughly $1.9 trillion in spending, further narrowing the distance with Democrats’ last $2.2 trillion relief bill, though the overall spending level and several thorny policy issues remain unresolved.

“I’m still very hopeful and very optimistic that we’re making progress,” Mr. Meadows told reporters.

The economy has partially bounced back from the deep economic slump set off by business closures due to the pandemic. But a top Federal Reserve official warned Wednesday that the economy would face a weak and uneven recovery without additional government spending to shore up the hardest-hit sectors.

“Apart from the course of the virus itself, the most significant downside risk to my outlook would be the failure of additional fiscal support to materialize,” said Fed governor Lael Brainard.

Despite dwindling prospects for enacting legislation before the election, Mrs. Pelosi and Mr. Mnuchin reported continued progress after a 48-minute phone call Wednesday afternoon.

“Today’s conversation brings us closer to being able to put pen to paper to write legislation,” Drew Hammill, Mrs. Pelosi’s spokesman, said on Twitter. “With the exchange of legislative language, we are better prepared to reach compromise on several priorities.”

Mr. Hammill said the two sides had made progress on health issues, including how to structure a national plan for testing and contact tracing of the virus, but were still hammering out other differences, including school funding.

The agreement under discussion faces an even bigger hurdle than the calendar, in opposition from Senate Republicans. Mr. McConnell told Senate Republicans Tuesday that he had warned the White House against dividing his caucus right before the election with a sweeping stimulus deal, according to people familiar with the comments.

Mrs. Pelosi said Wednesday it would be up to President Trump to convince Mr. McConnell and Senate Republicans to support a deal, if one is reached.

At the root of Republicans’ resistance are their concerns that Mr. Mnuchin is ceding too much to Mrs. Pelosi and that a potential deal would contain few GOP policy victories while requiring trillions in new deficit spending, Republican aides said.

“There’s more than just the top line, it’s the substance that we haven’t been talking about or focusing on,” Sen. John Cornyn (R., Texas) said Wednesday.

With no current path to passage for a deal in the Senate, the negotiations between Mrs. Pelosi and White House officials struck many on Capitol Hill as a series of political calculations, with both sides seeking to avoid blame before an election.

“Neither side wants to be the one to publicly walk away 12 days before the election,” said Brian Walsh, a former Senate GOP leadership aide. “But the reality is that it’s not going to happen until after, if at all, and even that will depend on the postelection environment.”

“It’s just one gigantic spin game,” said Greg Valliere, chief U.S. strategist at AGF Investments, a financial services firm. While many Republicans believe Mrs. Pelosi wants to deny Mr. Trump a political victory right before the election, she could also benefit politically from reaching an agreement that Senate Republicans then take the heat for blocking, giving her the opportunity to say “this president can’t control his own troops,” he said.

Lawmakers acknowledged that the proximity to the election, in which control of the Senate is up for grabs and Mr. Biden is leading in the polls, was making it harder to reach a bipartisan agreement in the waning days of the campaign.

Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R., S.D.) said “the fog of the election” had prodded lawmakers to go “to their battle stations” on the issue.

Eager to demonstrate their support for narrower Covid-19 relief, Senate Republicans again brought to the floor Wednesday a tweaked version of an earlier $650 billion proposal, which doesn’t include a second round of checks for Americans or funding for state and local governments. The measure was blocked by Democrats, who said it was an inadequate response to the pandemic.

Even a deal reached this week with broad, bipartisan support would face logistical hurdles to becoming law before the election. Once an agreement is struck, it must be written into legislative language, not a speedy task with a package expected to cost close to $2 trillion and extend over thousands of pages. While a vote in the House would be speedy, any opposed lawmakers could stretch out the process of considering it in the Senate.

—Andrew Restuccia and Catherine Lucey contributed to this article.

Write to Kristina Peterson at kristina.peterson@wsj.com.

Click here for the original article.

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