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Timeline for coronavirus relief package vote slips despite progress in talks

Drafting, scoring the legislation will take too much time to get it ready for floor action before the election

Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks during her weekly news conference on Oct. 22, 2020.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks during her weekly news conference on Oct. 22, 2020. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Speaker Nancy Pelosi raised doubts Thursday about getting a coronavirus aid bill passed before the Nov. 3 elections, even if a bipartisan deal is reached in the coming days.

While talks continue, the California Democrat said it would take time to get a comprehensive bill written and reviewed by budget scorekeepers and legal counsel before a floor vote could be scheduled. And with only 12 days to go before the elections and no deal yet reached, there may be little time left, she said.

“If we can resolve some of these things in the next few days, it will take a while to write the bill,” Pelosi said at her weekly news conference. While a deal could still pass before Election day, she said, “We wouldn’t take less of a bill to get it sooner.”

Pelosi said she remained hopeful of reaching a deal with the Trump administration that could end a monthslong stalemate over a new relief package to combat the health and economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.  After several daily talks with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, she told reporters late Thursday that she was waiting to hear from congressional committee leaders who were trying to resolve differences between Democrats and the administration. 

But her hedging comments about the timing of potential votes injected a fresh dose of doubt that any new aid could get delivered before Election Day. And Pelosi said President Donald Trump would need to convince Senate Republicans to back any potential deal that they so far have panned as excessively costly.

“I do believe that both sides want to reach an agreement,” Pelosi said. “I can’t answer for the disarray on the Senate side. It’s not up to me to psych out [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell.”

McConnell has sought to limit the size of a new aid package. While Pelosi and the White House negotiate a roughly $2 trillion measure, the Kentucky Republican pushed a $519 billion aid package to the Senate floor Wednesday. Democrats decried the bill as an “emaciated” version of pandemic relief and blocked it from advancing.

 “Getting the Republican votes is not my job,” Pelosi said. “That’s up to them.”

In a leadership call Thursday, Pelosi said Democratic lawmakers have told her they don’t want to have a House vote on an aid package before the elections unless the Senate agrees to take it up by then as well, according to a source familiar with the call. That sentiment, depending on how widely shared it is, could make pre-election votes on any aid compromise less likely.

Even so, both sides pledged to continue talking. “We’re going to stay engaged until Nancy Pelosi says no or walks away,” White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows told CNN.

Two of the biggest obstacles to a deal, liability protection for employers and aid to state and local governments, remain unresolved, Pelosi said.

Democrats have pushed in their most recent bill for $436 billion in state and local aid, saying the money is needed to avoid mass layoffs of firefighters, police, teachers and health care workers. Mnuchin has countered with $300 billion.

The White House and GOP lawmakers have pushed back on the higher figure, saying many states have financial problems that were unrelated to the pandemic.

“We’re not here to bail out poorly run states, whether they’re red, white or blue,” National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow told reporters Thursday. “We’re not here to bail out pensions from the state governments. We can do that another time.”

Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., said election pressures make it doubtful that a deal could be reached in coming days. 

“We could have done better, but I think the Democrats don’t want anything,” he told reporters Thursday. “The secretary, he’s wanting a deal, but the speaker’s looking down the road, maybe, until after the election.” 

Trump fueled doubts about a deal Wednesday evening in a tweet that pointed to the dispute over state and local aid, arguing that Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer are focused on “BAILING OUT poorly run (and high crime) Democrat cities and states.”

Pelosi held her ground on the issue Thursday, saying state and local governments are the prime funder of schools. “You’re hurting the kids if you’re not doing state and local,” she said.

Kudlow said before a deal can be reached, Democrats must give up on ideological provisions such as providing health care for undocumented immigrants. “We don’t have to solve that now,” he said of immigration disputes. “That has nothing to do with COVID.”

Pelosi said “good progress” was made this week on funding and plans for virus testing and tracing, vaccine development and distribution. “I think we are just about there,” she said.

But she said more work is needed to ensure that schools have enough resources to open safely and conduct remote learning. “It only takes money, and really not much more money than they have in the bill,” Pelosi said.

Despite narrowing differences on dollar amounts between Pelosi and Mnuchin, committee leaders charged with implementing any agreement still haven’t gotten their marching orders.

“It’s about three or four minutes to midnight on the clock here,” Shelby said. “There could always be a miracle, but there’s not many around here.”

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

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