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Stimulus talks: Everyone wants a deal but it's unclear if a bipartisan plan will deliver, even with Democratic leader support

Posted December 3, 2020 8:39 a.m. EST

— Stimulus talks are as real as they have been in months right now, with Democratic leaders' embrace of the bipartisan group's framework on Wednesday a sign that this could begin a real negotiation.

We are not quite there, but things are moving.

What's happening behind the scenes? Leadership aides are still talking to try and find a path forward on spending. Meanwhile, the bipartisan group -- which aides tell CNN now includes about 10 members -- met again via Zoom on Wednesday to figure out how they are going to turn a one-page, $908 billion framework into legislative text. The goal is to have this ready by Monday, according to Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia.

But, that's a very tough lift and here is why: This framework was a single page. It included top line numbers for items like state and local funding, unemployment insurance, the small business loan Paycheck Protection Program, transportation, vaccine development and more.

But, what it didn't include was language or even an outline in writing about how you structure many of these programs. Who gets the transportation funding, for example? Who knows. State and local funding alone can derail talks over how you set up which states get what money. And the pitfalls of how you structure liability insurance are infinite. Not to mention the bigger this group becomes, the more you introduce new issues, new pet issues and new potential opportunities for the group's unity to be tested.

This is all a reminder that this is complicated stuff, and just because Manchin told reporters on Wednesday the goal is to have legislative text by Monday, that doesn't mean it will happen or that the bipartisan group will still be intact when it is all said and done.

The best path forward may be to hand these negotiations over to the respective committees where staff has the kind of expertise and negotiating skills to put pen to paper.

Why did Pelosi and Schumer come out in support of this deal?

Ever heard of an off ramp? For months, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had been negotiating with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and holding firm that she wanted a deal in the neighborhood of $2 trillion. That was $1 trillion less than where she had been in the early summer.

But, the dynamics shifted -- and fast -- after the election. It became clear that Democrats were unlikely to win back the Senate even with a pair of Georgia runoffs slated for January, and Pelosi was dealing with a Democratic caucus in the House that had lost far more frontline members than anyone on their side had predicted. If President-elect Joe Biden is to come in and have any chance of passing a legislative agenda in his first 100 days that includes anything other than a stimulus bill, Democrats needed to fall in line behind something -- even if it was smaller than they wanted -- in the lame duck.

"The point I made to the speaker was, you could get a lot of other things done," one Democratic member told CNN, arguing that one goal is to make sure that the deck is as clear as possible for Biden.

Biden gently embraced the framework Wednesday in his conversation with small business owners saying that he ultimately wanted something more robust, but "it would be immediate help for a lot of things, quickly."

When you talk to rank-and-file Democrats, they argue this is just a down payment. They can and should do more, but many of the provisions outlined in the framework go until April. And everyone on Capitol Hill is keenly aware that by that point, our lives in the context of coronavirus could look very different. The economy could be improving and many Americans could be on the cusp of being vaccinated. Members know that the momentum is here now, a cliff is coming at the end of December and waiting several more months will be devastating for Americans who need the help now.

"It does the important things well enough for now," said Rep. Tom Malinowski, a New Jersey Democrat, of the framework. "And we cannot afford to wait until February."

Where are Republicans?

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is still taking the temperature of his members and trying to get a sense of where they are on his smaller GOP proposal.

Remember, McConnell is the most patient man in Washington when it comes to letting things play out. The bipartisan group may not actually deliver a bill, and even if they do, no one knows right now how Republicans may come down on it. It's not necessarily a dodge when members need to see legislative text. They need to know what this thing would really look like.

With that said, you are seeing some Republican members begin to either embrace the bipartisan framework or try and see if they can get involved to make it something they could support. The Chamber of Commerce has come out in support of the bill and the expectation is that other groups may follow, according to multiple aides. In other words, there has never been a moment in six months of covering this where I have seen rank-and-file members on all sides this desperate to get a deal, and outside groups are very aware that letting the perfect be the enemy of the good right now is not a good option.

In a virtual GOP lunch Wednesday, GOP Sen. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, who is hardly a moderate, was emphatic with GOP colleagues that they need to get behind the framework. His message? They can keep putting GOP-only bills on the floor and get all 52 Republicans, but they are never going to get a bill signed that way.

"Lowest common denominator gets 52 votes, but doesn't become law," he said.

"I was very blunt at lunch," Cramer told CNN on Wednesday night. "I am not against the partisan bill or the Republican bill per se, but I am more interested in doing something good."

When CNN pushed him on if McConnell could get there or if he'd ever put it on the floor, he said, "we all have work to do to continue to convince him."

He added, "I store a lot of capital, I accumulate a lot of capital, and then I spend it on the things that really matter and this is one of those things."

A brief note on spending

We are on continuing resolution watch.

In other words, there are just under nine full days until December 11, which means nine days until the government runs out of money. Omnibus negotiations are still going and they are making progress, according to multiple aides. But that progress may not be fast enough, so be on the lookout for news that they may have to begin working on a continuing resolution -- a resolution that would continue current funding levels for a set time -- to get them through the spring.

The other option? They could give themselves a continuing resolution for a week and keep making progress on the omnibus and stimulus.

One note about the National Defense Authorization Act

The limits of a lame duck President are coming into view.

President Donald Trump's late night insistence Tuesday to eradicate Section 230 -- a provision that gives broad protections to internet companies for the content they publish or third parties publish on their sites -- by attaching it to a critical defense spending bill was swiftly rebuffed on Capitol Hill -- including from Republicans.

In fact, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee Jim Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, called Trump and told him that they weren't going to have that fight on the National Defense Authorization Act. Inhofe also made clear that a provision that allows for the renaming of military bases that were named after Confederate figures is staying put.

Now, if Trump wants to veto the NDAA, that will force another fight. Congress would need the votes to override. But, in all the moments of Republicans not standing up to Trump, it was pretty clear they weren't having the antics on Wednesday when it came to a bipartisan bill that sets policy for the Pentagon.

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