Confusion grips Capitol amid flurry of stimulus plans

No one seems to know what’s going on with coronavirus relief anymore.

In the span of an afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell suggested dropping discussions on the two biggest sticking points. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin offered a new proposal to Speaker Nancy Pelosi. A bipartisan group of senators is still working to finalize language on a $908 billion package. And President Donald Trump endorsed new stimulus checks.

While there’s an uptick in the flurry of activity surrounding bipartisan talks, there’s so far little evidence actual progress is being made, even as Democratic and Republican leaders insist that Congress will not leave for the holidays without a deal.

“We’ll stay here until we get common sense agreement,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who is leading the so-called “908” coalition.

The struggle to reach an agreement on coronavirus relief comes as cases continue to reach record levels and the economy is showing signs of slowing down. And even though lawmakers are trying to project newfound optimism, the dilemmas that have befuddled negotiations remain the same.

Less than an hour after McConnell proposed dropping liability protections and state and local aid, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer accused him of “sabotaging” ongoing bipartisan talks, and several Democrats agreed.

McConnell has long called a liability shield his “red line,” while Democrats have rejected his legislation that hasn’t included state and local assistance. The GOP leader suggested those fights can continue next year, given the likely need for another package, first telling his members in a conference call and then delivering remarks to the press about a possible compromise.

But any hope of breaking the deadlock by dropping contentious provisions seems to be a pipe dream. Schumer argued that leaving out state and local assistance would lead to sweeping public sector layoffs and scoffed at the idea McConnell was trying to compromise.

“State and local funding is bipartisan unlike the extreme corporate liability proposal Leader McConnell made which has no Democratic support,” Schumer told reporters. “Sen. McConnell is trying to pull the rug out from beneath the Gang of Eight” negotiators.

Meanwhile, Mnuchin said Tuesday afternoon that he spoke with Pelosi and offered a $916 billion proposal that would provide money for both state and local governments and include liability protections.

While talks have stalled for months over the same issues, senators insist that this time is different because rank-and-file members are now pushing for a concrete proposal.

“Their position hasn’t changed in six months,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), referring to the clash between party leaders. “The only thing that’s changing is you’ve got a group of, now, a dozen senators, who clearly really want the $908 billion framework to move forward.”

That proposal includes $160 billion for state and local governments, a temporary liability shield for businesses and money for transportation, vaccines and schools. But it has yet to be finalized.

“Mitch doesn’t want a deal,” Manchin said. “You have to have both.”

The $908 billion proposal, however, doesn’t include direct payments, a point of contention from the unlikely duo of Sens. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Hawley said in an interview that he spoke with Trump again Tuesday afternoon about the need to include direct checks in any coronavirus relief package, a proposal that has divided Senate Republicans but that the White House appears to support.

The whirlwind of discussions comes as Congress faces an imminent deadline to avert a government shutdown. McConnell and Pelosi have said that coronavirus relief should be included in legislation to fund the government. Both chambers of Congress are set to pass a one-week spending bill to give Congress until Dec. 18 to avoid a shutdown and approve a coronavirus package.

But when Biden is in office, Democrats are sure to keep pushing for a larger package. Pelosi said whatever ultimately comes together before the holidays won’t be enough to qualify as fiscal stimulus, adding, Congress must pass something “bigger” next year.

Caitlin Emma contributed to this report.