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Dueling coronavirus relief bill visions cloud lame-duck outlook

Pelosi angling for big package; McConnell says election results, economic numbers argue otherwise

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham wants Congress to pass a sizable coronavirus relief package this year. But not everyone in his party agrees.
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham wants Congress to pass a sizable coronavirus relief package this year. But not everyone in his party agrees. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Republicans and Democrats are moving in opposite directions on another coronavirus relief package, lowering the odds of a deal this year.

Republicans argued Friday that Democrats’ loss of House seats and upbeat jobs numbers indicate Congress should approve a smaller package during the lame-duck session set to begin next week.

But Speaker Nancy Pelosi said her party’s continued House majority and probable White House win, as well as the spike in infections throughout the country, argue for a robust package rather than the slimmer versions Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has put forth.

“It doesn’t appeal to me at all because they still have not agreed to crush the virus,” Pelosi said during a news conference. “That isn’t anything that we should even be looking at. It wasn’t the right thing to do before.”

McConnell told reporters in Kentucky that the latest jobs numbers were a “stunning indication of a dramatic comeback of the economy.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics said Friday that the unemployment rate dropped to 6.9 percent — the sixth straight month of decline — and 638,000 nonfarm workers were added to payrolls during October. There were 1.5 million fewer unemployed workers than the prior month.

McConnell said the jobs numbers support “the argument that I’ve been making for the last few months that something smaller, rather than throwing another $3 trillion at this issue, is more appropriate, with it highly targeted toward things that are directly related to the coronavirus.”

The report showed job growth slowing for the fourth month in a row, however, and unemployment is still nearly twice what it was in February.

One of the core issues in the monthslong pandemic aid talks is that President Donald Trump and the vast majority of Senate Republicans are in different places on a relief package.

Trump said before the election he would like to spend more than the $2.4 trillion House Democrats included in their most recent aid package. Most Republicans want a smaller bill somewhere in the $500 billion to $1 trillion range.

Whether Trump will negotiate if he loses his reelection bid is a critical unknown factor.

The Associated Press hasn’t yet called the race for Democratic nominee Joe Biden but the former vice president’s vote total surpassed Trump’s in Pennsylvania and Georgia on Friday. It may be weeks before the outcome of that race is decided, leaving both control of the White House and Senate in limbo for the time being.

White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said Friday the administration is open to negotiating a relief package, though he differed from Trump’s previous comments on size and scope.

“Sen. McConnell and for that matter President Trump, and [Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin] and I and the others … we would like to negotiate a package,” Kudlow said. “It would still be a targeted package to specific areas. We’re not interested in two or three trillion dollars.”

Kudlow repeated familiar themes, including liability protection, aid to hospitals and schools, and a renewal of the Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses.

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., told reporters at the Capitol on Friday the election results so far show that Pelosi needs to move closer to Republicans on virus aid, but added that neither side has a strong negotiating hand.

“There was no mandate in this election. They would like the government to work. And that means you’ve got to take the people that voters have sent here and figure out how to make that work. No blue wave. No mandate,” Blunt said. “The message here is that we all need to work together to get to some conclusions.”

Pelosi disagreed, saying that Biden, whom she preemptively called the “president-elect,” has “a strong mandate to lead and he’ll have a strong Democratic House with him.”

The speaker believes the public backs Democrats’ preference for a big relief package and that Biden will have the megaphone now to help advocate that.

“For us now, the fact that we have the president of the United States to speak to the American people in these terms is such an advantage for us to be able to work together in a bipartisan way, rather than the Republicans mischaracterizing what we’re trying to do in the Congress in the United States,” she said.

Coming off his own reelection victory in a race Democrats had high hopes for, Sen. Lindsey Graham said Friday that he wants to see lawmakers clear a sizable relief bill this year.

“I’ve been in the camp of going big,” the South Carolina Republican said. “We need a big package; some Republicans don’t agree.”

Chris Cioffi and Doug Sword contributed to this report.

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