WASHINGTON – The major players in Washington's COVID-19 relief blame game lobbed familiar volleys on Thursday, marking time in the days before an election that promises to change the landscape for talks that have dragged on for months without producing results.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi issued a scolding assessment, blaming Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin for failing to produce answers to her demands for Democratic priorities as part of the approximately $2 trillion aid package. President Donald Trump again promised “a very big package as soon as the election is over" and faulted Pelosi for the pre-election standoff that has rattled markets and shows, at least for now, no signs of easing.
Pelosi sent Mnuchin a letter faulting Republicans for the failed talks, which ground on for three months and cratered in the final days before the election. Where the talks go after the election is wholly uncertain — a comeback win would award Trump with greater leverage but a loss could also make him less invested in an agreement and less willing to compromise to get there.
“I would rather do it now, but Nancy Pelosi does not want to do it," Trump said Thursday from Las Vegas on “The Jon Taffer Podcast.”
Pelosi says remaining obstacles to an agreement include more than half a dozen big-ticket items, including a testing plan, aid to state and local governments, funding for schools, jobless benefits and a GOP-sought shield against coronavirus-related lawsuits.
Republicans, who say Pelosi has been unyielding in the talks, will control the White House and the Senate until January regardless of the outcome of Tuesday's election, and have pressed for a more targeted aid package that ignores key Pelosi demands.
They say items like refundable tax credits for the working poor and families with children are not directly related to fighting COVID-19 and charge that Pelosi has slow-walked the negotiations to deny Trump a victory in the run-up to Election Day.
Pelosi's letter to Mnuchin comes as markets are reeling from a coronavirus surge across the country and Washington’s failure to agree on another virus relief package.
“As the coronavirus surges and the stock market plummets, we are still awaiting the Trump Administration’s promised responses on multiple items of critical importance,” Pelosi wrote. “Your responses are critical for our negotiations to continue."
Mnuchin shot back that Pelosi's letter was a “political stunt" for the media's benefit. He said in a response letter that Pelosi's “ALL OR NONE approach is hurting hard-working families NOW" by holding up more narrowly targeted legislation that could pass with little controversy.
The California Democrat has played hardball in the talks and has for months demanded a $2 trillion-plus COVID-19 rescue deal that's larger than the landmark $1.8 trillion CARES Act that swept through Congress in March. Legislation has twice passed the House, but the GOP-held Senate has been gridlocked.
The White House said Pelosi is uninterested in compromising on major issues.
“I don’t think this recovery depends on the assistance package, per se, but I do think unemployment assistance, (Payroll Protection Program) small business assistance, helping the schools — that could have helped a lot, and it’s not going to happen," White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said on Fox News. “The Democrats have been completely intransigent.”
Pelosi has extracted a series of concessions in the most recent round of talks without giving much in return, the White House says, and Pelosi's jibes at Mnuchin were delivered to Politico in an early morning PR offensive.
Recent weeks of secretive talks have been accompanied by lots of optimistic rhetoric from Pelosi and at times from her administration counterparts — but no results. Meanwhile, many Senate Republicans have broken with Trump, who was eager for a deal that would have let him issue another round of $1,200 direct payments in his name. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell advised Trump against a deal before the election, warning it would divide Republicans.
Pelosi said Thursday that she is confident that Joe Biden will win the White House and said that wrapping up COVID-19 relief legislation in the lame-duck session would help get a Biden administration off to a quick start. But she brushed aside any suggestion that she would need to display more flexibility to get any measure signed by Trump.
“I want a bill for two reasons. First and foremost, the American people need help,. They need real help," Pelosi told reporters. “And second of all, we have plenty of work to do in a Joe Biden administration."
The failure of the talks, along with a third, frightening wave of coronavirus cases sweeping the country, has sent markets plummeting and is sure to bring heat on lawmakers to resolve their differences after the election. But such lame-duck sessions — especially if there is a change in Washington's balance of power — often fail to deliver.