State of Congress' stimulus negotiations: 'We're in different universes right now'

The negotiators responsible for brokering a sweeping deal to keep tens of millions of people...

Posted: Jul 29, 2020 9:02 AM
Updated: Jul 29, 2020 1:00 PM

The negotiators responsible for brokering a sweeping deal to keep tens of millions of people from losing federal unemployment benefits, all while keeping the economy as the coronavirus resurges in various places across the country, are currently at the 'airing our differences' phase of talks.

One person involved told CNN last night: 'We're in different universes right now.'

The weekly $600 federal unemployment enhancement expires in 48 hours.

Bottom line: Contrary to where things currently sit, there are solutions here. People involved in the talks -- most of whom are veterans of a half-dozen or more extremely high stakes deadline negotiations -- acknowledge there are deal points here that can be reached. But they also make clear neither side is anywhere near moving towards those points at the moment.

What to watch: Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows will return to the Capitol Wednesday to meet again with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer.

The talks

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, emerging from a more than hour-long meeting with the top White House negotiators, said the message Democrats have received is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell 'really doesn't want to get an agreement made.'

Pelosi was responding to McConnell's insistence that he is unwilling to negotiate on the draft liability protections proposal that Senate Republicans introduced on Monday.

McConnell, in an interview on CNBC on Tuesday, said Republicans are 'not negotiating over liability protections.'

Pelosi described the meeting with Meadows and Mnuchin as an effort at 'airing our differences. There's discovery and understanding on where there might be opportunity or not.'

Mnuchin, on his way to McConnell's office, said conversations are ongoing, but 'we still have a lot work to do on where we are.'

Meadows, asked if negotiators were getting closer, responded: 'I don't know that I would characterize it as getting closer.'

Major sticking points: Talks are still at their topline stages, but Democrats aren't budging on the $600 federal unemployment enhancement, nor the nearly $1 trillion for state and local funding. McConnell has made his position known on liability. And while those are the big picture issues, as one person involved put it: 'We haven't really even gotten to the granular stuff yet.'

How things are really going

Pelosi and Schumer requested Mnuchin and Meadows ask McConnell if he was serious about not being willing to negotiate on the liability protections proposal. Pelosi's office is a couple hundred feet away from McConnell's, just across the Rotunda. As far as we're aware, both leaders also have telephones. This is, to be sure, not a great sign of the current dynamics.

Also not great: Meadows has shifted from football to baseball metaphors in describing where talks stand. One problem: baseball games can technically go on -- forever, so long as nobody has more runs after the bottom of an inning. At least with football the field is firmly 100 yards. Meadows said talks are currently in the second inning. He did not specify whether he expected this to be a nine-inning, or extra innings, affair.

The negotiating dynamics

McConnell, at his weekly press conference, made official that Meadows and Mnuchin would be leading the talks with Democrats. For a senator who has been at the center of so many major deals over the years, it's a noticeable step back and one that tracks closely to how he's operated through much of the coronavirus response legislation. On its face, Mnuchin has the best relationship with Pelosi among Republicans and one person involved made clear that Trump wants Mnuchin out front on this.

But it's also a reflection of where McConnell's conference sits at the moment -- as he put it Tuesday: 'all over the lot.' The Kentucky Republican is constrained with what he can do right now and his members are extremely frustrated and all over the map. For now, Senate GOP leadership is working with their members to get a better sense of what the rank-and-file may want or need in any final deal. Make no mistake, McConnell will be kept up to date in real time on talks, his staff will be involved every step of the way and he'll have his stamp on any final agreement. But for the moment, he's not in the room and in the meantime, the center of gravity is in Pelosi's office.

Senate Republicans

Senate Republicans are all over the place right now and the frustration is palpable. Rank-and-file senators say they are out of the loop, uncomfortable with the price tag already and extremely wary of the direction talks will head now that Democrats are involved. 'Nobody trusts Mnuchin,' one Republican senator told CNN.

Sen. Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican, was even more brutal in his assessment, called Mnuchin one of two 'big government Democrats' (Pelosi being the other) who were 'playing gross games with your kids' money.'

Senate Republicans have griped about Mnuchin for months, warned the White House not to have him lead this round of negotiations and have long been convinced that he gave away too much in past talks with Pelosi. But that was always done quietly. The frustration is now spilling out into public view.

And yet: President Trump, in his press conference on Tuesday, made a point of noting that Mnuchin was doing a great job and can bridge the gap between Republicans and Democrats. As far as Mnuchin's standing goes, that's really all that matters at this point.

The President's comments

It came across as a throwaway line from a president who hadn't fully engaged in the relief package talks yet -- President Trump calling the Senate GOP proposal 'sort of semi-irrelevant' given it had to be reconciled with Democrats.

It was not viewed as a throwaway line among Senate Republicans and staff, many of whom worked for weeks on putting that proposal together, only to have it delayed for days by specific White House requests, some of which (see: FBI Building, $1.75 billion) only served to turn into a messaging nightmare for the proposal.

GOP senators and aides involved in the process made clear, repeatedly over the course of the week, sources say, that the offer represented an opening bid and it was important just to get something on the table, not to get hung up on technical details that would only serve to make future talks more difficult. But the White House insisted -- and delayed its roll-out by four days even with the unemployment benefit expiration loomed.

Now the President says publicly he disagrees with pieces of that proposal, but it doesn't matter anyway because that proposal is 'semi-irrelevant.'

It's not a secret that GOP senators are not currently in a good place on this process. But according to several last night, the President's comments only served to twist the knife of the last few days.

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