WASHINGTON – The White House moved aggressively Friday to revive stimulus talks that President Donald Trump had called off just days earlier, putting forward its largest offer for economic relief yet as administration officials and embattled Republican lawmakers scrambled to avoid being blamed by voters for failing to deliver needed aid before the election.
The new proposal’s price tag of $1.8 trillion, which Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin presented to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a roughly 30-minute phone call, was nearly double the original offer the administration put forward when talks began in late summer.
It was the latest indication that the White House was eager to backtrack from Trump’s decision Tuesday to abruptly halt negotiations, and it reflected a growing sense of dread both at the White House and among vulnerable Senate Republicans facing re-election about the political consequences of his actions. The offer also highlighted the deep and persistent divisions among Republicans — most of whom have balked at a large new federal infusion of pandemic aid — that have complicated the negotiations for months.
Now, with Trump pressing to “Go Big,” as he put it in a tweet Friday, he has raised the prospect of pushing through a plan that his own party refuses to accept, giving Pelosi and Democrats fresh leverage to dictate the terms of any deal.
On Friday, she was continuing to hold out for more concessions. While Mnuchin’s latest offer “attempted to address some of the concerns Democrats have,” Drew Hammill, a spokesperson for Pelosi, said it did not include an agreement on a national strategy for testing, tracing and other efforts to contain the spread of the virus, which the speaker has pushed for in recent weeks. “For this and other provisions, we are still awaiting language from the administration as negotiations on the overall funding amount continue.”
“I do hope we will have an agreement soon but, as you say, they keep changing,” Pelosi said on MSNBC. Referring to Trump’s tweets that temporarily ended the negotiations, she added that the president “got a terrible backlash from it, including in the stock market, which is what he cares about. And so then he started to come back little by little, and now a bigger package.”
Speaking on right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh’s show, Trump conceded that he had changed his position on approving additional coronavirus aid before Election Day, declaring “I would like to see a bigger stimulus package, frankly, than either the Democrats or Republicans are offering.” (Alyssa Farah, the White House communications director, later contradicted Trump’s assertion, telling reporters that the administration wanted a final package to remain below $2 trillion, which is less than the $2.2 trillion measure Pelosi pushed through the House this month.)
Such sums are deeply alarming to most Republicans, who are increasingly contemplating their party’s future after Trump departs the political scene and are determined to reclaim the mantle of the party of fiscal restraint. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, warned Trump in a phone call this week that most GOP senators would not embrace a stimulus measure as large as Pelosi wanted, an assessment that appeared to play a role in Trump’s decision to tweet an end to the talks.
Speaking to reporters in Kentucky on Friday, McConnell continued to cast doubt on the chances of a deal in the coming weeks, saying political divisions remained too deep.
“The situation is kind of murky and I think the murkiness is a result of the proximity to the election and everybody kind of trying to elbow for political advantage,” McConnell said. “I’d like to see us rise above that like we did back in March and April, but I think that’s unlikely in the next three weeks.”