Can Nancy Pelosi and the White House Reach a COVID Deal by the Election?

A key deadline is coming Tuesday night.

Nancy Pelosi gesticulates while wearing a mask and standing at a podium in front of a U.S. flag and a House of Representatives flag.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi addresses the press on Capitol Hill on Oct. 9. Nicholas Kamm/Getty Images

After weeks of on-again-off-again negotiations with the Trump administration, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Sunday put a deadline on reaching a major coronavirus relief deal if it’s to be processed before the election: If negotiators can’t arrive at an agreement on major outstanding issues by Tuesday night, Pelosi said, then they won’t have the time to move a deal through Congress—to the extent it’s able to move through Congress—by Election Day.

And there’s a lot of work left to get done in the next day.

While the White House had signaled last week that it would adopt Pelosi’s provisions for a national testing, tracing, and treatment plan for the virus, the speaker claimed the language the administration offered had more than a “light touch” of editing.

“Instead of recognizing the need for a strategic plan, they have changed words including ‘shall’ to ‘may,’ ‘requirement’ to ‘recommendation,’ and ‘strategic plan’ to ‘strategy,’ ” Pelosi wrote in a letter to colleagues on Sunday. “These changes make the funding a slush fund for the Administration which ‘may’ grant or withhold rather than a prescribed, funded plan to crush the virus.”

Elsewhere, Pelosi is insisting on an expanded earned income tax credit and child tax credit, more funds for state and local governments, and language protecting the census. The differences in top-line spending numbers—$1.8 trillion vs. $2.2 trillion, say—aren’t the impediment to track. The policy differences are, and the numbers will move as they’re ironed out.

For Senate Republicans, though—who have zero interest in participating in these negotiations between the administration and Pelosi—everything’s an impediment. A price tag of $1.8 trillion would be $1.8 trillion more than most Senate Republicans would like to spend, and $1.3 trillion more than they’re willing to spend. Only a handful of vulnerable Republicans want to pass significant relief. The rest can’t stomach either the cost or the policy and aren’t sure why they’d swallow something they view as so toxic to benefit a president whose prospects for reelection have begun to look beyond rescue.

In the event a deal comes together, then, the standoff between the White House and Senate Republicans would be a live measurement of the weakened president’s influence over those he’s spent the past three years dominating into submission. By Monday, the White House appeared to be preparing to corner Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in the event of a deal. White House chief of staff Mark Meadows told reporters, for instance, that it’s “up to McConnell” whether “there’s enough [Republican] votes to get to the 60-vote threshold” on a deal.

More egregious, though, was Meadows’ own twisting of McConnell’s words about whether he would allow a vote on a deal. McConnell “has agreed” to bring it to a vote, Meadows told reporters. That is not what McConnell said. In a carefully worded statement over the weekend—which McConnell’s office reemphasized today—the majority leader said that “if Speaker Pelosi ever lets the House reach a bipartisan agreement with the Administration, the Senate would of course consider it.” McConnell meant “consider” in the way you might tell someone selling timeshares door to door that you’d “consider” the brochure if they’d just get off your front stoop. It was not a pledge to act on it.

Both McConnell and Pelosi’s postures toward a major deal incorporate the belief that Trump is not likely to win reelection. McConnell, who recently giggled throughout a debate whenever his opponent, Democrat Amy McGrath, would bring up how the Senate hasn’t done anything on coronavirus relief, doesn’t want to lose standing within his conference while setting up a would-be incoming Biden administration with a $2 trillion honeymoon. Pelosi, meanwhile, told her conference in a call Monday that she wants a deal “as soon as possible because I don’t want to carry over the droppings of this grotesque elephant into the next presidency”—but she also knows that, in the event they can’t get what they want, she would likely be able to write from scratch a $3 trillion Democratic bill in January.* The president, it seems, is the only party here whose position is based on the belief that he might win in 15 days.

He has a day to decide.

Correction, Oct. 19, 2020: This piece originally misstated that Nancy Pelosi said in a Wednesday conference call that she wants a deal “as soon as possible.” The call took place Monday.