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“The clock is ticking,” said White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow on Fox News about the possibility of a coronavirus deal. “We have tried very hard to narrow the gap. Very hard. But we just can’t leap the hurdles of policy disagreements.”
Kudlow conceded it would be “very hard to get it done before the election.”
This is a negotiation which started back in July. Pressure mounted in early August. Talks went dark for a while. Then intensified in the middle of September. That’s because layoffs loomed in October. Extra unemployment benefits expired in July. The sides believed they had an opportunity to forge a deal before the election. A coalition of Democrats and Republicans pressured House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to cut a smaller deal with the administration.
Pelosi spoke nearly every day with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin for weeks. President Trump dithered about what he wanted. He said first no bill. The president attempted to end negotiations – but Mnuchin didn’t listen. Trump then declared he wanted to spend more than even Pelosi.
Mnuchin went to Senate Republicans with a $1.8 trillion proposal. They flat-out rejected that.
That’s a retrospective of where we are today on a coronavirus deal.
And while there’s no deal, Pelosi and Mnuchin spoke yet again on Monday.
More than 8.2 million seconds have bled off Kudlow’s clock since these discussions began. And now there is simply no way to get a coronavirus deal before the election.
Perhaps there never was. The gaps were too wide.
Politico’s Jake Sherman posed the most simple, yet important questions at Pelosi’s press conference late last week.
“Have you come to an agreement on state and local funding?” asked Sherman.
“No,” replied the speaker.
Sherman followed up.
“And on liability?” he asked.
That’s a reference to special liability protections Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., says are essential for a coronavirus bill.
“No, we haven’t,” answered the speaker.
That exchange crystallizes the entire problem.
There was never an agreement on a topline spending figure. And, they never settled the most nettlesome policy issues in the negotiation: how much to spend on state and local governments and a potential agreement on if people could sue over the pandemic.
Still, a weird nebula of optimism encased the talks last week.
“The negotiations have entered a new phase,” bragged White House chief of staff Mark Meadows on FOX Business last week. “We’re still far apart. Still a number of issues to work on. But the last 24 hours have moved the ball down the field.”
“We are committed to getting a stimulus package. This is the best we’ve felt about it to date,” bragged White House Communications Director Alyssa Farah.
Pelosi sprinkled the word “optimistic” into a number of media interviews she did as well.
But few bought it.
Meadows visited Capitol Hill to speak with Republican senators last week. There really wasn’t any movement among GOP senators who could only support a bill of a few hundred billion dollars – or do nothing at all.
“Maybe he just needed to get out of the White House,” suggested Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., of Meadows.
A senior Congressional Republican source characterized all of the chatter about optimism as “happy talk.”
Other congressional sources wondered aloud if things really were inching in the right direction. Or, if this was just another façade?
Pelosi imposed a deadline of last Tuesday to get a deal. But then they continued talking. The idea was that they had to have the details nailed down by last Tuesday so they could get legislative language settled by last Friday. Only a timetable that strict would allow the House (and, perhaps, only the House), to move a prospective bill before Election Day.
But some aides doubted that Pelosi needed the deal frozen in form late last week to get anything done. One source observed that the sides exchanged so much paper that quickly translating provisions into legislative language wouldn’t take long.
Fox was told by multiple Congressional sources this was an effort – by both sides, to give the appearance they are trying to get a deal just before the election. That would appeal to voters on both sides. Moreover, such continued talks, day in and day out, continue to buoy the market.
“Can you imagine if they came out and said they didn’t have a deal?” said one Congressional source who asked not to be named. “What would that do to the election? What would it do to stocks? What would that do to the economy?”
One factor in this process remained unmovable: Election Day.
It was always likely the election would help settle this dispute.
“If we’re going to do it this year, it’s now or never,” said Blunt. “I think the lame duck [Congress] is a really hard time to get much done – in any lame duck. I don’t see why this one would be different.”
That means nothing could move until January.
It’s a misnomer that leaders can seemingly pry loose intractable issues in a lame duck session of Congress. But that’s rarely the case. The members who were reluctant to go along before suddenly don’t lose their political convictions just because they got reelected. Or are retiring. Or lost. Positions don’t change.
Second of all, divides exist between the president and Republicans. President Trump doesn’t have a lot of capital among Senate GOPers these days. That could change if Trump wins reelection. But, if the president loses, he really lacks much traction with reluctant Senate Republicans.
This is to say nothing of private criticism shared with Fox News by both GOP lawmakers and aides who have no idea what exactly Mnuchin was negotiating or if they could agree to anything he negotiated with Pelosi.
In Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One,” video game players are on a quest to find three keys buried within the “Oasis,” a vast, beautiful virtual reality. But after five years of searching, no one located even a single key. That led some to question whether the keys even existed. Or, if this was just a big, digital, wild goose chase.
It turns out the keys were real in the movie. But it took a long time to find them.
It may be unclear whether the pursuit of a big coronavirus bill is a wild goose chase. Or, like some wondered in “Ready Player One,” if the keys were ever real.
One thing’s for sure. The clock has been ticking. And if the keys to a coronavirus agreement are real, it’s taking a long time to find them.