US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin speaks during a press conference at the US State Department in Washington on September 21, 2020 about the Trump administration's restoration of sanctions against Iran.
Patrick Semansky | Pool | Reuters
House spokeswoman Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin spoke on Thursday about a comprehensive coronavirus stimulus package.
Pelosi and Mnuchin had a 40-minute phone call that afternoon about "whether there is any prospect of an imminent settlement on a comprehensive bill," speaker spokesman Drew Hammill said in a tweet.
Hammill said Mnuchin had "made it clear" that Trump had an interest in reaching an agreement on a comprehensive aid package – widely viewed as one that addressed a range of issues such as unemployment benefits, direct payments, state and local government relief and aid to airlines Payroll coverage covered.
Pelosi pointed to comments made by White House communications director Alyssa Farah, who on Thursday afternoon expressed doubts about Trump's desire to draft comprehensive legislation. Farah told reporters the White House wanted to look into stimulus checks, small business loans and an "airline bailout", but not as "part of a larger package".
The spokesman would take Mnuchin's word that Trump wants a broad proposal, Hammill added.
"The spokesman trusts the secretary to speak for the president," he wrote.
Later on Thursday, Farah told reporters, "We're open to something bigger." But "we're not going to operate with the $ 2.2 trillion the speaker spent," she said.
Thursday afternoon developments continue a confusing week of back-and-forth between the Trump administration and Pelosi as the sides make one last attempt to get more help to Americans ahead of the 2020 election. Subject to a swift resolution, it seems doubtful that Congress can pass another relief bill before November 3, even if further signs of a stalled economic recovery emerge.
Earlier this week, Pelosi and Mnuchin held talks about a fifth pandemic relief package that Congress has been unable to produce for months. As the White House and Democrats sought common ground between their $ 1.6 trillion and $ 2.2 trillion bids, respectively, Trump on Tuesday ordered his administration to hold business talks on hold until after the election.
That night he quickly reversed course. The president pushed for bills of materials to send direct payments to Americans and relief to airlines. Trump reiterated his call for standalone bills on Thursday.
After opening the door to a separate bill to send money to airlines to prevent tens of thousands of vacations, Pelosi closed it Thursday. She then suggested moving forward talks on a comprehensive plan.
"We are at the table. We want to continue the conversation. We have made some progress, we are exchanging languages," the spokesman told reporters.
The hectic discussions confused even the leaders of Congress.
"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 day-to-day discussion can be confusing for all of us, but we are still engaged and we hope we can find a way forward.
He added, "At some point we have to find a way forward because I believe there is a bipartisan agreement that we need a different package. But the amount of money is not irrelevant, you know."
It is still unclear what kind of legislation could get through the Democratic House and the GOP-controlled Senate before the elections. Senate Republicans have raised concerns about putting too much money into another bill after Congress poured trillions into the coronavirus response this year. The Senate GOP most recently proposed a $ 500 billion bill.
Neither party has shown willingness to move away from their current position.
Many economists and policymakers have pushed for fiscal incentives to avoid the pain for people who are unemployed and find it difficult to afford food and housing months after the crisis. Earlier this week, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell urged Congress to provide more relief to avoid "tragic" consequences.
He warned lawmakers not to back off from stimulating the economy.
"In contrast, the risks of exaggeration seem to be lower for the time being," he said.
The president seems to have reversed course since Tuesday. Trump, concerned about the sudden stock market slump after breaking off talks, told House minority chairman Kevin McCarthy that he wanted a "big deal" with Pelosi, according to Axios.
Some House Democrats have been pushing Pelosi in recent months to pass standalone bills to address issues like supplemental unemployment insurance. But on Thursday Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., Told CNBC that he was against a phased approach at this point.
"It's very hard when you start breaking it into little pieces because you leave certain people out and leave others behind," he said.
Rep. Tom Reed, a New York Republican who co-chairs the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus with Gottheimer, said a potential $ 1.7 trillion aid package was "right in the zone" of what he would be supporting .
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