Pelosi, Mnuchin speak about broad stimulus bill as White House sends mixed signals

Key Points
  • House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin spoke Thursday about the prospect of striking a broad coronavirus stimulus deal, after President Donald Trump pulled out of talks earlier this week and called for stand-alone bills. 
  • Earlier, Pelosi said she would not pass a separate bill to send relief to airlines to cover payroll. 
  • As more signs of a faltering economic recovery emerge, the Trump administration and Democrats are running out of time to pass a potential relief bill before the 2020 election. 
U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin speaks during a news conference to announce the Trump administration's restoration of sanctions on Iran, at the U.S. State Department in Washington, September 21, 2020.
Patrick Semansky | Pool | Reuters

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin spoke about a broad coronavirus stimulus plan Thursday, capping another day of jumbled efforts in Washington to inject more aid into a floundering economy. 

Pelosi and Mnuchin had a 40-minute afternoon phone conversation about "whether there is any prospect of an imminent agreement on a comprehensive bill," the speaker's spokesman Drew Hammill said in a tweet.

Hammill said Mnuchin "made clear" Trump had interest in finding agreement on a comprehensive relief package — generally considered one that would address a range of issues including jobless benefits, direct payments, state and local government relief, and aid to airlines to cover payrolls. 

Pelosi pointed out comments from White House communications director Alyssa Farah, who on Thursday afternoon cast doubts on Trump's desire to craft broad legislation. Farah told reporters the White House wants to address stimulus checks, small business loans and an "airline bailout," but not as "part of a larger package." 

The speaker would take Mnuchin's word that Trump wants a broad proposal, Hammill added. 

"The Speaker trusts that the Secretary speaks for the President," he wrote. 

Later Thursday, Farah told reporters "we're open to going with something bigger." But "we're not going to operate from the $2.2 trillion that the speaker laid out," she said. 

The developments Thursday afternoon continue a confusing week of back-and-forth between the Trump administration and Pelosi as the sides make a last-ditch push to send more aid to Americans before the 2020 election. Barring a quick resolution, it appears doubtful Congress can pass another relief bill before Nov. 3 even as more signs of a faltering economic recovery emerge.

Early in the week, Pelosi and Mnuchin had conversations about a fifth pandemic aid package that Congress has struggled to craft for months. As the White House and Democrats tried to find common ground between their $1.6 trillion and $2.2 trillion offers, respectively, Trump on Tuesday ordered his administration to call off stimulus talks until after the election.

He quickly reversed course that night. The president pushed for piecemeal bills to send direct payments to Americans and relief to airlines. Trump reiterated his call for stand-alone bills Thursday.

After Pelosi opened the door to a separate bill only to send money to airlines to prevent tens of thousands of furloughs, she shut it on Thursday. She then suggested talks about a comprehensive plan could move forward. 

"We're at the table. We want to continue the conversation. We've made some progress, we're exchanging language," the speaker told reporters. 

The frenetic discussions have left even congressional leaders perplexed. 

"I think we're still talking and trying to see if we can narrow our differences," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Thursday in Kentucky. "And you know, the discussion from day to day can be confusing for all of us to follow, but we're still engaging and hoping we can find a way forward.

He added: "At some point, we're going to have to find a way forward because I do think there is bipartisan agreement that we need another package. But the amount of money is not irrelevant, you know."

It is still unclear what kind of legislation could get through the Democratic-held House and GOP-controlled Senate before the election. Senate Republicans have expressed concerns about putting too much money in another bill after Congress put trillions into the coronavirus response this year. The Senate GOP most recently proposed $500 billion legislation.

Neither party has showed willingness to budge from its current position. 

Many economists and policymakers have pushed for fiscal stimulus to avoid sharpening pain for people left jobless and struggling to afford food and housing months into the crisis. Earlier this week, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell urged Congress to pass more relief to avoid "tragic" consequences. 

He warned lawmakers against pulling back from boosting the economy. 

"By contrast, the risks of overdoing it seem, for now, to be smaller," he said. 

The president appears to have reversed course since Tuesday. Trump, who was concerned by the sudden stock market drop after he called off talks, told House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy he wants a "big deal" with Pelosi, according to Axios.

We need a stimulus deal before the next inauguration, we need to keep pushing: Rep. Gottheimer
We need a stimulus deal before the next inauguration: Rep. Gottheimer

Some House Democrats in recent months have pushed Pelosi to pass stand-alone bills to address issues such as supplemental unemployment insurance. But on Thursday, Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., told CNBC he opposed a piecemeal approach at this point. 

"It's very hard when you start breaking it up into little pieces because then you're going to leave certain people out and leave others behind," he said. 

Rep. Tom Reed, a New York Republican who chairs the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus with Gottheimer, said a possible $1.7 trillion aid package would be "right in the zone" of what he would support. 

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