White House, Pelosi see progress on COVID-19 aid talks

The White House West Wing entrance as seen early in the morning prior to U.S. President Donald Trump departing on campaign travel to Michigan and Wisconsin in Washington, D.C., U.S.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday said negotiators were making progress in talks with the Trump administration for another round of COVID-19 stimulus, but Senate Republicans remained skeptical of a possible deal costing trillions of dollars.

“I think we’re not going anywhere. A lot of talk, no action,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby told reporters.

Pelosi, the top Democrat in Congress, was expected to resume negotiations with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin later on Thursday, as the two sides try to reach a deal that could be worth around $2 trillion before the Nov. 3 presidential and congressional election.

“It’s close. It’s close,” Pelosi told reporters. “And the question is, where will the president be at any given moment? He’s been all over the map.”

Republican President Donald Trump, who has recently called for more stimulus as he trails Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in national opinion polls, appeared to cast doubt on a deal on Wednesday by saying he could not see any way for Democrats to agree on a stimulus package.

“Their primary focus is BAILING OUT poorly run (and high crime) Democrat cities and states,” Trump wrote on Twitter.

But on Thursday morning, White House spokeswoman Alyssa Farah told Fox Business Network: “This is really the most optimistic we’ve felt about getting a deal.”

White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow cautioned there were still “significant policy differences” with Democrats on state and local government funding and liability issues, and said these were unlikely to be resolved before Nov. 3.

After pushing through more than $3 trillion in spending meant to address the human and economic toll of a pandemic that has now killed more than 221,000 Americans, Congress since April has been unable to agree on further actions.

Senate Republicans have repeatedly rejected the sort of trillion-dollar-plus packages now under discussion, while Democrats have dismissed smaller efforts as insufficient.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in Congress, does not want to bring a large bill to the Senate floor before the election, as he focuses on trying to confirm Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett.

Shelby, the appropriations committee chairman, said he had yet to see any details of the proposals that Pelosi and Mnuchin had been batting around, although he said White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows had been in touch with some of his staff.

“It’s about three or four minutes to midnight on the clock here. I don’t see much doing. It could always be a miracle, but not very many around here,” he said.

Pelosi said the two sides were narrowing differences on how to attack the pandemic and on aid to state and local governments, which has been a major hurdle.

She said talks were also focused on aid to schools and on tax credits to help lower-income Americans hit hard by the pandemic, which has left millions jobless.

Pelosi acknowledged an aid agreement would need Republican support: “We have to have strong bipartisanship on the legislation that we come together on. I would hope that we could have bipartisanship in the House and in the Senate.”

Republican Senator Marco Rubio said he would be “very uncomfortable” with a big aid package in an interview with CNBC, but also acknowledged: “That said, I think the price of not doing something is even higher.”

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