In traditional legislative terms, the process of coming up with a coronavirus response bill has been advancing steadily along. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, according to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, had “literally been working around the clock to achieve a bipartisan agreement” on a bill by Friday afternoon. She had been negotiating with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, one of the few Trump administration figures with whom she holds a decent working relationship, to reach agreement on something that the president and House Republicans could support. Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff, Drew Hammill, had been tweeting each call that the speaker had been having with Mnuchin. They had spoken nine times on Friday by 2:15.
That ninth call came shortly after Pelosi spoke to the press about the package she was putting together, which would include free coronavirus testing, two weeks paid leave for those affected by the outbreak, and strengthening unemployment insurance and food assistance programs. In her remarks, she said nothing about whether she had reached an agreement on such a package with Mnuchin, or whether Trump would support it. Democrats expect to vote one way or another on Friday, either on a Democratic bill or on a bipartisan deal.
A major sticking point: House Republicans, who passed $1.5 trillion in tax cuts largely targeted to the wealthy and corporations in 2017, say they have deep concerns about the cost of two weeks’ paid leave for people who can’t work during a pandemic.
That doesn’t mean they couldn’t support an agreement with such provisions. But like anything the legislative branch tries to do, it depends on something outside the halls of Congress. Republicans still need to know the only thing they ever need to know: that President Donald Trump likes it. As Politico reported Friday, “House Republicans have grown skittish about a coronavirus package negotiated by Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, and are hoping President Donald Trump openly embraces the bill to provide them political cover.”
Mike Ricci, a former spokesman for House Speaker Paul Ryan, described the situation like so:
There were countless occasions in the previous Congress, whether on health care, immigration, budget deals, or appropriations bill, in which the Republican rank and file may have had ideological objections to certain provisions—but mostly hinged their votes on whether Trump would tweet his support. Given Trump’s pathological interest in heightening suspense to draw more attention to himself, he could drag these decisions out for some time.
At his press conference on Friday afternoon, after the president had given a roll call of blue-chip corporate CEOs an opportunity to pump the market ahead of the closing bell, Trump sounded sour on the negotiations.
“We don’t think they’re giving enough,” Trump said of the Democrats, while adding that they’re still negotiating. “They’re not doing what’s right for the country.” What he did not do, however, was specify which provisions he had problems with, the sort of specificity that might have moved the process along.
If the two sides can’t reach a deal, House Democrats will pass their own measure with mostly Democratic votes. It will then reach the Senate, where Republicans would be likely to reject it when they return to Washington next week. In other words, another week or so will pass with the legislature having provided bupkis in the form of aid or stimulus to combat the pandemic that has shut down the world.