WASHINGTON (NEXSTAR) — After months of negotiations and wrangling over the idea of a second round of direct payments to Americans, we’re getting mixed messages about the possibility of new stimulus checks from the federal government.
The good news: Republicans and Democrats agree they should be part of any coronavirus relief package.
The bad news: The two sides are approximately $700 million off on the size of an aid measure.
In order for checks to be sent to Americans by the end of the month, a deal would likely need to be approved in the next two weeks. Based on the speed of negotiations thus far, that scenario seems unlikely.
Nevertheless, it is possible. Over the last 48 hours, the two sides have crawled closer than they’ve been in months.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin will meet again Thursday after holding an “extensive conversation” Wednesday on a huge COVID-19 rescue package, meeting face to face for the first time in more than a month in a last-ditch effort to seal a tentative accord on an additional round of coronavirus relief.
After a 90-minute meeting in the Capitol, Pelosi issued a statement saying the two would continue to talk. “We found areas where we are seeking further clarification,” she said.
After the meeting, Mnuchin told Fox Business Network the two sides reached an agreement on direct payments to Americans if there is a deal.
The latest proposal from the Democrats is $2.2 trillion and Mnuchin indicated to Fox Business he wanted a deal closer to $1.5 trillion.
However, Roll Call reported Wednesday Mnuchin was willing to go with a $1.6 trillion plan that included money for state and local governments, additional funding for schools and COVID-19 testing and an additional $400 a week in federal unemployment benefits.
“I’ve seen substantial movement, yes, and certainly the rhetoric has changed,” White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said.
At the very least, the positive tone set by Pelosi and Mnuchin represented an improvement over earlier statements. But there is still a considerable gulf between the two sides, top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell said.
One issue with direct payments as part of a wide-ranging relief package: they’d be largely viewed as a big win for President Trump during a crucial election season. When the first round of checks was distributed to most Americans, Trump’s signature was on each of the payments. If Trump was able to get a second round of relief distributed as people are heading to the polls for early voting, it would certainly be something to brag about.
The thought of that leaves many lawmakers skeptical of whether an agreement can be reached before Nov. 3.
“I’m concerned there won’t be a deal before Election Day because, frankly, I don’t think the Democrats want one,” Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo. “You could look in the United States Senate, they won’t even let us debate the issue.”
After initially saying the Democratic-controlled chamber would vote Wednesday night on a $2.2 trillion relief bill — a debate that would have been partisan and possibly unproductive — Pelosi made an about-face and postponed the vote until Thursday in hopes of giving the talks with Mnuchin greater breathing room.
“Whether the (Trump) administration wants to work with us or not, we are going to pass something,” Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., said. “As a way to say to the American public, ‘We are here to help. We know you’re hurting. We know our small businesses are hurting.'”
At issue in negotiations is a long-delayed package that would extend another round of $1,200 direct stimulus payments, restore bonus pandemic jobless benefits, speed aid to schools and extend assistance to airlines, restaurants and other struggling businesses.
A landmark $2 trillion relief bill in March passed with sweeping support and is credited with helping the economy through the spring and summer, but worries are mounting that the recovery may sputter without additional relief.
“We have a severe sense of urgency because of the people that we serve,” Bustos said.
Mnuchin said Wednesday morning that he would tender a new offer resembling a plan released a couple of weeks ago by the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus. That proposal was previously rejected by Pelosi and other top Democrats as inadequate. It totals about $1.5 trillion and would provide additional jobless benefits if unemployment remains unacceptably high.
The “top line” limit upon which Pelosi, the Trump administration and Senate Republicans might be able to agree has been a subject of considerable speculation. Pelosi had drawn a hard line until recently, and talks have foundered, but failure now could mean there wouldn’t be any COVID relief until next year, especially if Trump loses his reelection bid. Pelosi has never had a reputation for leaving large sums of money on the table.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.