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GOP pushes back on White House's stimulus talks with Pelosi, signaling final action could slip until after elections

Posted October 21, 2020 4:31 p.m. EDT

— Senate Republicans reiterated on Wednesday their stiff opposition to the White House's last-ditch effort to cut a major stimulus deal with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the latest indication that passing any new relief package almost certainly will have to wait until after Election Day.

At a closed-door lunch, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows fended off serious concerns raised by GOP senators over the Trump administration's efforts to finalize a roughly $2 trillion package before the elections.

"He got some pushback on: 'Why are you bidding this up into an area where you're gonna lose support?' " Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a West Virginia Republican, told CNN. "He said: 'It's a work in motion.' "

Senate Republicans, who failed to advance their own $500 billion plan Wednesday over Democratic opposition, have given Meadows and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin an earful over the last two weeks about the frantic push to reach a deal that the GOP argues is far too expensive.

And as Meadows showed up to the GOP lunch on Wednesday, he once again fielded an array of concerns from Republicans as he contended that negotiations were still ongoing and he attacked Pelosi for her handling of the talks.

"Most of the progress we've made have been concessions that the President has made to date, and yet, you know the next two or three days will make the biggest differences," Meadows told reporters afterward, saying: "We haven't seen a lot of action from Speaker Pelosi."

Meadows added: "Obviously there are a number of senators that have concerns over the amount we're spending. There are some that think we're not spending enough."

Indeed, many GOP senators made clear their opposition to the direction of the talks.

"No," Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander told CNN when asked if he could support a deal in the $1.8 trillion-$2 trillion range. "I don't think there's appetite for that."

Sen. Mike Braun, a Republican from Indiana, said "no real particulars" came out of Meadows' presentation because talks are still ongoing.

"I wouldn't be for a bill that would be $1.8 trillion-$2 trillion," Braun said. "It's too much and there's going to be too much extraneous stuff as well."

Several GOP senators said Meadows provided scant information about what Mnuchin and Pelosi had agreed to so far.

"There's concern on the amounts -- and the biggest concerns are what are we funding? And he didn't get into any of that," Capito said.

Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican running for reelection in Texas, said the GOP has ample questions about where the talks are going -- and didn't get answers from Meadows.

"Part of the message from Senate Republicans is we need to have a discussion about the substance and whether irrespective of the top line whether the policy makes sense," Cornyn said.

The dour GOP assessment came as lawmakers in both parties believe that the relief package almost certainly will have to wait until after the November 3 elections during a lame-duck session of Congress.

While the elections will be over then, freeing both sides from intense political pressures, the outcome of the elections will scramble the calculations for all sides involved in the negotiations -- adding deep uncertainty to how action in a lame-duck session would play out.

What Pelosi really wants is to clear the decks and pass a major bill to help Joe Biden if he wins the presidency, sources familiar with her thinking said, meaning that final passage could wait until after the elections and before the new Congress takes power in January.

The California Democrat has not yet told her colleagues if she'll bring the House back to session next week to vote on the stimulus, sources said. So it's still possible the House could return next week just days before Election Day.

But senior House Democratic sources said if the bill language and details of the legislation are not finalized by Friday, getting a bill passed out of their chamber by November 3 will be nearly impossible.

While it's possible a deal in principle between the White House and House Democrats can be reached before then, passing a bill through both chambers is an extremely tall order.

"The election is less than two weeks away, and I believe we will be back in Washington a week or two after the elections and we could (pass) something then," House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat, told CNN on Wednesday. "At least the elections will be behind us, people will know what their futures are and maybe they will be more apt to sit down and get serious about things after their electoral prospects have been settled."

Pelosi later said on MSNBC that there's still an open question on when a bill will be passed.

"It's a question of, is it in time to pay the November rent, which is my goal, or is it going to be shortly thereafter and retroactive," she said.

It's still uncertain how the Senate will respond.

While Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he would put any agreement backed by President Donald Trump on the Senate floor, he has not committed to doing so before the election. The Kentucky Republican, who told his colleagues this week that he had urged the White House not to cut a major preelection deal, has not yet said when he plans to close the chamber's doors so senators can return home to campaign before November 3.

The Senate is likely to adjourn after Amy Coney Barrett is confirmed to the Supreme Court on Monday, according to GOP sources, though the final schedule has not yet been announced.

"Haven't made an announcement on that yet," McConnell said when asked if the Senate would be in session after Monday.

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