The Coronavirus Relief Negotiations Are Completely Stuck

And the only thing that can unstick them is more American pain.

U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows listen to questions from the media after a meeting with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) at the U.S. Capitol August 4, 2020 in Washington, DC.
Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows after a meeting with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell about relief package negotiations. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Each day for the past week, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have met with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows. After a couple of hours in which each of the meeting’s principals may as well have been playing Candy Crush in silence, the respective parties inform the press that no progress has been made on a new coronavirus relief package.

Each morning for the past week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell—who’s not sitting in on the negotiating sessions but is kept abreast of them—comes to the Senate floor to excoriate Democrats for playing politics. Shortly thereafter, Schumer explains that Republicans either don’t understand, or don’t care about, the severity of the problems facing the country. Pelosi states, to whichever camera she’s addressing, that Republicans and Democrats, alas, don’t have “shared values.”

The one thing they do share is the prediction that these negotiations would be far more grueling than past coronavirus relief negotiations, given the proximity to the election. They were right. And the message from Meadows and Mnuchin during Senate Republicans’ weekly policy lunch on Tuesday was, effectively, that they had gotten nowhere.

“No movement,” Indiana Sen. Mike Braun told reporters after the lunch. “The secretary’s comment was, he didn’t think they were any closer to a deal now than this time last week,” Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley said. If anything, according to North Dakota Sen. Kevin Cramer, at least the “tone” of the discussions had changed.

But more friendly tones alone cannot bridge the gap between Democrats, who want to spend $3.4 trillion, and Republicans, about half of whom already consider $1 trillion too much. Dialing down the temperature will not get Republicans to budge from their position of offering zero additional dollars to aid state and local governments, and a slightly different vibe won’t convince Democrats to move either. Democrats still want to extend the (now-lapsed) $600 enhanced unemployment benefits at least through the end of the year; meanwhile, there are 53 Republican senators with about 53 different opinions on the proper way to proceed on unemployment.

“Despite reports over the weekend that sounded positive, I think the positiveness you heard was about body language,” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, with a touch of derisiveness, told reporters. “But at some point, [Democrats] have to move, as we as well have to move, toward one another.”

Republicans describe the problem as Democrats refusing to budge from their starting negotiating positions, most of which they outlined in the $3.4 trillion HEROES Act that passed the House in May. Schumer didn’t exactly deny that in his Tuesday press conference, arguing that the scope and price tag they sought was a straightforward reflection of existing needs.

“There are real dramatic needs,” Schumer said, while arguing that they were negotiating in good faith. “We’re not going to do one-fifth of the needs, or a quarter of the needs, or a third of the needs.”

He reiterated, for good measure, how the distribution of available votes for a package of this magnitude skew.

“Leader McConnell just said he’s not going to get a whole lot of Republican votes for whatever is going to pass,” Schumer said. “So I’d remind the Republican leader, and the negotiators, that if this bill is going to pass with all Democrats in the House and a majority of Democrats in the Senate, it’s got to be something that Democrats like and support.” That Democrats will be providing the lion’s share of the votes is one of the key sources of their perceived leverage—along with their belief that Republicans need a package to prevent the economy from (further) collapsing ahead of the incumbent Republican president’s reelection.

Some Republicans, though, are beginning to see Democrats’ aggressive posture as an indication that they’d rather have the issue than a deal.

“I predict that as long as the Democrats believe they can win a PR war on inaction, and have it blamed on Republicans, they’re not going to be willing” to cut a deal, Rubio told reporters. “They basically feel like they can win.” Democrats do feel like they have that upper hand, and that’s why they’re holding firm. But they also really do want to replace devastated state and local budgets, and to save the Postal Service ahead of a mostly mail-in election they’re currently favored to win. They’re not just stringing Republican along for kicks.

The question of whether to continue pursuing a deal, and to delay the start of next week’s August recess, splits Republicans roughly according to the amount of impending electoral danger they feel. Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who’s in a reelection race that he can’t take for granted, said there was no way they could go home without a deal. “How do you think it looks for us to be back home when this is unresolved?” he said. “This is the most important thing we need to be doing.” Other senators who either are up for reelection in safe states or not up at all suggested they should just be on call to return to the Capitol in case a deal gets struck.

So what needs to change to make that happen? None of the cutesy tactics being tossed around to get discussions going will make a difference. Meadows and Mnuchin on Tuesday floated the possibility of executive action in lieu of a deal. If this is a threat, it’s not one Democrats take seriously; no executive action tinkering around the edges can counteract the pain that would be felt in this country without congressional action. Some senators have suggested that McConnell should get involved by being in the room for the negotiating sessions. McConnell hasn’t been present—in part because he knows that whatever deal is struck won’t be popular with much of his conference, and so he’s kept his hands clean by leaving the task to Democrats and the White House—but that doesn’t mean he’s unaware of what’s being offered and counteroffered. In the room or out, it doesn’t really matter.

The breakthrough, if there is one, will be determined less by tactical choices than by barometric changes in the political atmosphere. The effects of enhanced unemployment benefits ending and the federal eviction moratorium lifting are being felt now and will be felt more with each passing day. This Friday’s jobs report is not expected to be good. Democrats hope that both the administration and vulnerable Senate Republicans will continue feeling the heat until they move to a place where Democrats are willing to meet them. The impasse is breakable. Conditions just haven’t fully ripened.

Late Tuesday afternoon, the negotiators emerged from the day’s negotiating session feeling a little more upbeat. Marginal movement had been achieved.

“We’re not at the point of being close to a deal,” Mnuchin told reporters. “But we did try to agree to set a timeline.”

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