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
“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
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
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
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
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
Write to Kristina Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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