Hopes dim­ming for new coro­n­avirus re­lief bill

Chicago Sun-Times - - NATION / WORLD - BY AN­DREW TAY­LOR

WASH­ING­TON — At least there won’t be a gov­ern­ment shut­down.

But as law­mak­ers strag­gle back to Wash­ing­ton for an ab­bre­vi­ated pre­elec­tion ses­sion, hopes are dim­ming for an­other coro­n­avirus re­lief bill — or much else.

Talks be­tween top Democrats and the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion broke off last month and re­main off track, with the bi­par­ti­san unity that drove al­most $3 tril­lion in COVID-19 res­cue leg­is­la­tion into law this spring re­placed by toxic par­ti­san­ship and a re­turn to Wash­ing­ton dys­func­tion.

Ex­pec­ta­tions in July and Au­gust that a fifth bi­par­ti­san pan­demic re­sponse bill would even­tu­ally be birthed de­spite in­creased ob­sta­cles has been re­placed by gen­uine pes­simism. Re­cent COVID-re­lated con­ver­sa­tions among key play­ers have led to noth­ing.

Democrats seem se­cure in their po­lit­i­cal po­si­tion, with Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and sev­eral Se­nate GOP in­cum­bents lag­ging in the polls. Trump is seek­ing to side­line the pan­demic as a cam­paign is­sue, and Repub­li­cans aren’t in­ter­ested in a deal on Demo­cratic terms — even as needs like school aid en­joy widespread sup­port.

Poi­sonous re­la­tion­ships among key lead­ers like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, DCalif., and White House Chief of Staff Mark Mead­ows give lit­tle rea­son for con­fi­dence about over­com­ing ob­sta­cles on the cost, scope and de­tails of a po­ten­tial re­lief bill. Pelosi re­cently re­ferred to Mead­ows as “what­ever his name is,” while the Mead­ows-run White House dur­ing a press brief­ing ran a video loop of Pelosi’s con­tro­ver­sial visit to a San Fran­cisco hair sa­lon.

Trump said Mon­day that Democrats “don’t want to make a deal be­cause they think that if the coun­try does as badly as pos­si­ble . . . that’s good for the Democrats.”

“I am tak­ing the high road,” he told re­porters at the White House. “I’m tak­ing the high road by not see­ing them.”

All of this im­per­ils the chances for an­other round of $1,200 di­rect pay­ments de­liv­ered un­der Trump’s name, the restora­tion of more gen­er­ous un­em­ploy­ment ben­e­fits to those who’ve lost their jobs be­cause of the pan­demic, up­dates to a pop­u­lar busi­ness sub­sidy pro­gram, and money to help schools re­open and states and lo­cal gov­ern­ments avoid lay­offs.

“I per­son­ally would like to see one more res­cue pack­age, but I must tell you the en­vi­ron­ment in Wash­ing­ton right now is ex­ceed­ingly par­ti­san be­cause of the prox­im­ity to the elec­tion,” said GOP Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell at an ap­pear­ance in Ken­tucky last week. “We’ve been in dis­cus­sion now for the last month or so with no re­sults so far. So I can’t prom­ise one fi­nal pack­age.”

McCon­nell had been a force for a deal but does not ap­pear ea­ger to force a vote that ex­poses divi­sion in his ranks.

Many Se­nate Repub­li­cans are also wary or op­posed out­right to an­other ma­jor chunk of debt-fi­nanced virus re­lief, even as GOP se­na­tors im­per­iled in the elec­tion like Su­san Collins of Maine and Cory Gard­ner of Colorado plead for more. Repub­li­cans are strug­gling to co­a­lesce around a uni­fied party po­si­tion — and that’s be­fore they en­gage with Demo­cratic lead­ers, who are de­mand­ing far more.

The re­la­tion­ship be­tween Pelosi and her pre­ferred ne­go­ti­at­ing part­ner, Trea­sury Sec­re­tary Steven Mnuchin, is civil but isn’t gen­er­at­ing much in the way of re­sults, other than a prom­ise to avoid a gov­ern­ment shut­down at the end of the month by keep­ing a gov­ern­ment-wide tem­po­rary spend­ing bill free of con­tro­versy. That mea­sure is likely to keep the gov­ern­ment run­ning into De­cem­ber. It’s likely to con­tain a bunch of low­er­pro­file steps, such as an ex­ten­sion of the fed­eral flood in­sur­ance pro­gram and a tem­po­rary reau­tho­riza­tion of spend­ing from the high­way trust fund.

The de­ci­sion for a “clean,” con­tro­versy-free stop­gap bill, known as a con­tin­u­ing res­o­lu­tion, means that both sides will forgo games­man­ship that uses the threat of a gov­ern­ment shut­down to try to gain lever­age. Trump forced a shut­down in 2018-2019 in a failed at­tempt to ex­tract money for his U.S.Mex­ico bor­der wall, while Democrats lost a shut­down en­counter in 2017 over leg­is­la­tion to help im­mi­grants brought il­le­gally to the coun­try as chil­dren win per­ma­nent le­gal sta­tus.

“Now we can fo­cus just on an­other re­lief bill, and we’re con­tin­u­ing to do that in good faith,” Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence said Fri­day on CNBC.

PA­TRICK SE­MAN­SKY/AP

“I am tak­ing the high road,” Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump told re­porters on Mon­day.

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