Trump coronavirus diagnosis changes dynamic of stimulus talks, Nancy Pelosi says

Key Points
  • House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said President Donald Trump's coronavirus diagnosis could change the dynamic of talks toward a stimulus deal.
  • Pelosi is engaging in last-ditch talks with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin as they try to strike an agreement before the 2020 election. 
  • House Democrats approved a $2.2 trillion bill on Thursday night, while Mnuchin has offered a $1.6 trillion package. 
U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) speaks during her weekly news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, August 13, 2020.
Sarah Silbiger | Reuters

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Friday that President Donald Trump's coronavirus diagnosis could change the shape of talks toward an evasive stimulus deal.

"This kind of changes the dynamic because here [Republicans] see the reality of what we have been saying all along. This is a vicious virus," the California Democrat told MSNBC, adding that she would pray for the president's safety. 

The House took its last votes of the week Friday before a planned October recess. Lawmakers could return to Washington to pass Covid-19 aid legislation and would get 24 hours of notice before a vote, according to Majority Leader Steny Hoyer's office. 

During a monthslong tug of war over how much money to inject into pandemic relief, Pelosi has repeatedly argued the GOP does not understand the gravity of the Covid-19 outbreak. While she and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin are hundreds of billions of dollars apart on a price tag during last-ditch talks toward an aid agreement, Pelosi said she is "optimistic" about striking a deal.

"We always have to find a path, that is our responsibility to do so, and I believe that we will," she said. 

Later in the interview, Pelosi added: "We'll find our middle ground. We're legislators. We'll get the job done."

The speaker and Treasury secretary talked on the phone Friday afternoon for more than an hour, Pelosi's spokesman Drew Hammill said. They discussed "areas of disagreement" and their "discussions will continue," he added.

The House passed Democrats' $2.2 trillion proposal Thursday night. Mnuchin has offered a $1.6 trillion package.  

Writing to House Democrats on Friday, Pelosi said "our negotiations with the [Trump administration] continue, and I am hopeful we can reach agreement" despite "significant disagreement in key areas." The speaker wrote that she expects a response from the White House on those topics as "we continue to work on the text to move quickly to facilitate an agreement."

She listed areas of dispute such as unemployment insurance (Democrats have proposed $600 per week in benefits, while the White House has supported $400 weekly) and funding for state and local governments (Democrats have offered more than $400 billion, higher than the $250 billion proposed by the White House). She also cited disagreements over the child tax credit, earned income tax credit, child care assistance money and funds for Covid-19 testing and tracing.

Despite the impasse, Pelosi took a significant step Friday in saying the House could pass a standalone bill to send airlines aid money to help cover payroll. She said the chamber could also include funds to prevent tens of thousands of looming furloughs as part of the bipartisan plan she hopes to craft with Mnuchin. Airlines have asked for $25 billion to cover employee pay as the travel industry suffers.

The scramble to send more assistance to Americans comes as the U.S. recovery from widespread economic shutdowns this year slows. Nonfarm payrolls increased by 661,000 in September, a lower number than expected. Along with airlines, other major corporations have announced tens of thousands of new layoffs and furloughs this week.

On Friday, Pelosi said Democrats and the GOP "don't have shared values" about how to contain the virus and what to put in legislation. While they have come closer to agreement on an overall price tag, direct payments and small business aid, the sides remain divided over how much relief to send states and municipalities and whether to shield companies and schools from lawsuits.

Republicans have in recent months called for more coronavirus relief, but a deal has proven hard to find as they argue Democrats have expensive and unreasonable demands. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, among other GOP congressional leaders, has stressed the importance of coronavirus precautions including mask-wearing, but some Republican lawmakers and the president himself have not taken the practice seriously at times.

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It is unclear whether the September jobs report or the president's diagnosis will make Congress more likely to approve a relief bill before the Nov. 3 election. Political considerations have crept into the process as Republicans defend Senate control and Democrats try to keep their House majority. 

Trump allies, including chief of staff Mark Meadows, touted the jobs report Friday morning as evidence of a swift and ongoing recovery, despite a disappointing number. 

"The economy continues to be robust and it's a V-shaped recovery. Unfortunately, that's not what everyone is focused on this morning," Meadows told reporters.

Meadows, who was not wearing a mask, later added: "[Trump's] first question to me this morning was, 'How's the economy doing? How are the stimulus talks going on Capitol Hill?'"

Underscoring frustrations with Pelosi's previous approach of accepting only a comprehensive bill, 18 Democrats voted against the $2.2 trillion legislation Thursday night. Most face competitive reelection fights in November and have criticized efforts to pass partisan legislation that could not become law.

The president's diagnosis has forced Mnuchin and Pelosi, who met in person on Wednesday, to take precautions. Mnuchin told Pelosi on Friday morning that he tested negative for the virus. 

The speaker also took a coronavirus test on Friday morning, and it came back negative, Hammill said.

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