As Time Runs Short, Optimism Fades for a Pre-Election Stimulus Deal

As Time Runs Short, Optimism Fades for a Pre-Election Stimulus Deal

WASHINGTON — Optimism faded on Friday for a pre-election breakthrough on a stimulus measure to stabilize a shaky pandemic-era recovery, as negotiations between leading congressional Democrats and the White House limped past yet another self-imposed milestone with no deal and no resolution in sight.

In what has become something of a familiar pattern of high hopes followed by snail’s-pace progress, Speaker Nancy Pelosi insisted that she was still optimistic about reaching a deal, even as a second consecutive day passed with no discussions between her and Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, who has been her negotiating counterpart. Instead, the two sides said it was up to the other to resolve the impasse.

President Trump, who has not spoken to Ms. Pelosi in more than a year but has recently decided that he must have a stimulus deal before he faces voters on Nov. 3, declared that she “would rather wait till after the election — she thinks it’s a good point for the election.”

Mr. Mnuchin, whom Mr. Trump has deputized to offer all manner of concessions to Ms. Pelosi, lamented that the speaker was “dug in.”

“If she wants to compromise, there will be a deal,” Mr. Mnuchin said.

And Ms. Pelosi maintained she was hopeful, saying on MSNBC that “we will be able to resolve some of the objections.”

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“We could do that before the election, if the president wants to,” she added.

Her comments hinted at the political calculation for Ms. Pelosi, who has consistently pressed for a more generous bill as Republicans have balked at providing more aid, and she sees little political downside to continuing to press the White House for more concessions, no matter what the calendar says. They also underscored a grim political reality for Mr. Trump, who is watching the clock much more closely, knowing that he is likely to be judged by voters on the strength of the economy and his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

With only six workdays remaining before Election Day, time has essentially run out for a stimulus deal to be enacted before the final day of balloting, with Ms. Pelosi previously telling reporters that text would need to be completed by the end of this week in order to become law by Nov. 3.

Any agreement would take days to be hashed out into legislative language, receive an official cost estimate, and be approved by the House. It would take at least another few days for such a deal to make it through the Senate, where major legislation needs 60 votes to advance and Republican leaders have said they have no interest — and few if any votes — for the kind of compromise the White House and Ms. Pelosi are contemplating.

“It’d take a colossal get-together — just a huge get-together — to put a stimulus package together,” said Senator Richard C. Shelby, Republican of Alabama and the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, who has spoken with both Mr. Mnuchin and Representative Nita M. Lowey, Democrat of New York and the chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee. “I think it’s a very doubtful, slim chance that we’ll get any type of stimulus before the election.”

Without action, tens of millions of Americans will go at least another month without supplemental federal unemployment benefits; small businesses, schools and hospitals will struggle to remain open during the pandemic; and the country’s faltering economic recovery will continue to weaken.

Senators — who spent a rare Friday session in a procedural brawl over Republicans’ rush to confirm Judge Amy Coney Barrett, Mr. Trump’s Supreme Court nominee — expect to leave Washington on Monday to join their House counterparts in a flurry of last-minute campaigning. It is unlikely, given the stark differences in both policy and price tag, that a deal between Ms. Pelosi and Mr. Mnuchin would spur Senate Republicans to reconvene the chamber for days of procedural votes when their majority hangs in the balance.

“A lot of my colleagues are turning toward sort of what will things look like after President Trump, and of course there’s an election between here and there that we still have to focus on and win,” Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware, told reporters. “Tensions and tempers are pretty high and pretty hot right now over this Barrett nomination, so we’re having a hard time having any constructive conversations.”

Both Ms. Pelosi and White House officials have insisted that there has been progress made in the talks, and Drew Hammill, her spokesman, said Friday evening that aides would continue to work through the weekend to put together a stimulus plan.

The two sides are still far apart on a Democratic demand for $500 billion in aid for state and local governments, the size of lapsed federal unemployment benefits and a Republican push for liability protections. People familiar with efforts to negotiate outstanding issues said privately that little progress had been made toward a deal Senate Republicans could support.

“We want this to be a bipartisan bill — the next bill to come to the floor, one that removes all doubt that it would become the law,” Ms. Pelosi said on MSNBC. In a leadership meeting on Thursday, she disclosed that multiple Democrats had told her that they did not want to return to Washington to vote on relief legislation without guaranteed passage in the Senate, according to one person familiar with the discussion, who disclosed it on the condition of anonymity because it was private. The conversation was earlier reported by Politico.

Republicans argue that Ms. Pelosi, eyeing another term as speaker and possible Democratic control of both chambers and the White House, never intended to pursue an agreement that could bolster Mr. Trump’s standing in the polls. (Ms. Pelosi scoffed at the suggestion on Friday, saying: “Why would we even be talking to each other? This isn’t like we have shared values or anything.”)

Mr. Trump, who has vacillated between spurning the talks and encouraging Congress to “go big,” has insisted that he has the political sway to persuade Republicans to endorse any agreement. But many Republicans do not trust Mr. Mnuchin, who they privately argue has abandoned longstanding party principles in an effort to win Democratic support. They are worried he is drafting a compromise that will alienate the party’s base.

With time waning before the election, it was increasingly likely that any agreement would drag into the lame-duck session, during the last remaining months before a new Congress convenes and when political incentives shift considerably, leaving uncertain the fate of any unfinished legislation.

“Once the dust settles and the smoke clears from the election, that will be a better posture for legislating,” said Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Senate Republican, who said he could foresee an agreement being announced before Election Day, but waiting until after the balloting for a vote. “I’m hoping that then everybody can get out of their corners and actually try and get a solution.”

Zach Montague and Alan Rappeport contributed reporting.

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