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Trump wants bigger coronavirus relief package; GOP support tepid

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Speaker Nancy Pelosi are swapping proposals, but time is running short

A Trump supporter waves two flags in Lafayette Park, outside the White House on Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020.
A Trump supporter waves two flags in Lafayette Park, outside the White House on Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

President Donald Trump continues to move away from his own political party on COVID-19 aid, saying Thursday that he’s authorized his top negotiator to offer Democrats more than $1.8 trillion.

“Absolutely I would. I would pay more,” Trump said in an interview with Fox Business. “I would go higher. Go big or go home.”

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin had offered the roughly $1.8 trillion figure in talks with Speaker Nancy Pelosi late last week. But Senate Republicans have balked at anything close to that number.

Pelosi and Mnuchin spoke by phone again Thursday for nearly 90 minutes, according to Pelosi’s Deputy Chief of Staff  Drew Hammill.

Hammill said Mnuchin told Pelosi during the call the administration will agree to Democrats’ preferred language on a national testing strategy with some “minor” changes — a small breakthrough he announced earlier in the day on CNBC.

Democrats have said the administration’s testing plan would delay the delivery of critical funding to states because it requires states to enter contracts and pass legislation to qualify for federal aid. Mnuchin has agreed to drop those requirements so states can get the money faster, according to a source briefed on the negotiations.

Pelosi has also criticized the White House for offering $45 billion in new testing and contract tracing funds, which she wrote in a “Dear Colleague” letter Sunday was only 60 percent of what’s needed.

On CNBC Thursday, Mnuchin said the administration would back the full $75 billion Democrats are seeking, though it wasn’t immediately clear whether some of that money would be repurposed from unspent funds. He said the White House’s offer includes a total of $178 billion for health care agencies, including $28 billion for vaccine development and distribution.

Mnuchin told Pelosi that Trump will reach out to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to try to urge him and other Senate Republicans to support a bigger overall package, Hammill said.

“The Speaker also raised Leader McConnell’s comments today about not being willing to put a comprehensive package on the Senate floor. The Secretary indicated that the President would weigh in with Leader McConnell should an agreement be reached,” Hammill tweeted.

McConnell said earlier in the day he doesn’t believe there’s a compromise to be had between the White House’s offer and what the Democrats are seeking.

“I don’t think so,” he said during a campaign stop in Kentucky. “That’s where the administration is willing to go. My members think what we laid out, a half a trillion dollars highly targeted, is the best way to go. So that’s what I’m going to put on the floor.”

Trump remains confident Republicans will support an agreement if one is reached. “The Republicans are willing to do it. I’d like to see more money,” he said Thursday on Fox Business. “We like stimulus, we want stimulus and we think we should have stimulus.”

‘Not a money issue’

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he would be willing to vote for another aid package that tops $1.8 trillion, but said he’s concerned about how policy language is drafted.

“To me it’s not a money issue, it’s a policy issue. For a lot of Republicans, it’s about money. Now I understand the debt. But I think [Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome] Powell is right, I think a bigger stimulus package would help with the right policy,” Graham told reporters.

Graham said he’s specifically concerned about language in House Democrats’ bill that would allow voters to submit absentee ballots in a number of ways as well as provisions that would allow direct payments to go to undocumented immigrants.  

Graham’s in an unexpectedly tight race against Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison, who raised a record $57 million in the third quarter. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales ranks Graham’s seat as “Tilt Republican,” a rating that’s dropped two notches from “Likely Republican” since early September.

The latest offer from Mnuchin totals $1.88 trillion with some reprogramming on state and local aid and using leftover funding for the Paycheck Protection Program, according to a source briefed on the negotiations who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly. The comparable figure Democrats are seeking is roughly $2.6 trillion, before their own offsets are included, including business tax increases.

The widening gulf between what Trump wants and what congressional Republicans are willing to accept further reduces the likelihood the House, Senate and White House can clear another relief package before Election Day.

Mnuchin said Thursday morning that given the pace of negotiations and the politics at play with less than three weeks until the elections, it’s unlikely Congress can clear another aid package, though he didn’t completely rule it out.

“A deal would be hard to get done before the election, but we’re going to keep trying,” he said. “I don’t want to say that it’s not likely, it’s just that there are significant issues.”

In his Fox Business interview, Trump seemed frustrated that Mnuchin has not been able to clinch an agreement with Pelosi. “So far he hasn’t come home with the bacon,” he said.

Despite his desire to go for a bigger aid package, Trump said he’s still opposed to the $2.2 trillion measure Pelosi wants.

“Because she’s asking for all sorts of goodies. She wants to bail out badly run Democrat states and cities. She wants money for things that you would never, you just couldn’t, just your pride couldn’t let it happen,” Trump said.

Niels Lesniewski and David Lerman contributed to this report.

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