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Trump, in total reversal, is telling allies he is, in fact, interested in a broad stimulus deal

Posted October 8, 2020 5:44 p.m. EDT

— President Donald Trump, in a head-spinning reversal, has told allies he's interested in a large-scale stimulus deal, according to a person with direct knowledge of his comments.

The person stressed it's unclear what, exactly, Trump's vision of a comprehensive deal would entail and there remains significant hurdles -- and skepticism -- when it comes to reaching an agreement through talks that have been largely stuck in the same place for several months.

But for Trump, who faced dropping markets and criticism from within his own party for his decision to abruptly end talks earlier this week, it marks another turn in the long-shot negotiations.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, in a call with Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday, said Trump was now interested in coming back to the table on a comprehensive agreement, according to Drew Hammill, Pelosi's deputy chief of staff. But even that was called into question by Pelosi on the call, who noted that another White House official had just earlier Thursday afternoon "contradicted that assertion." But Mnuchin assured the California Democrat the President was interested in a comprehensive deal and Pelosi, on a call with her leadership team later in the afternoon, said she believed the talks were back on, according to a source familiar with the call.

The stakes are, as they have been for months, enormous. The pandemic, which is still surging in parts of the country, has left unemployment significantly elevated, cratered small businesses through the US and presented significant budget short falls for states and localities. There have also been significant requests for resources by schools and public health officials to confront the fallout from the virus.

The development marks the completion of a head-spinning 48 hours. Trump, on Tuesday, took to Twitter to call off the stimulus talks entirely, sending markets into a dive. Eight hours later he called for piecemeal legislation to address the economic hardship created by the coronavirus pandemic -- something Democrats have repeatedly rejected. By Wednesday night, Mnuchin called Pelosi and said the President was interested in coming back to the table, according to a person familiar with their conversation.

Throughout the last few days, White House officials have said repeatedly that negotiations on a comprehensive deal were over and the preferred pathway was a series of smaller-scale bills.

Now, the President is once again open to a bigger deal.

Pelosi, who has repeatedly rejected GOP efforts to push piecemeal bills and did so once again on Thursday when it came to moving forward on a bill to provide payroll support for airlines, has said Democrats would remain at the table in case the White House returned -- but that any agreement would need to be comprehensive.

"Let's take a serious, not a skinny, not an emaciated but a serious appropriate approach, to crushing the virus," Pelosi told reporters.

The hurdles remain significant. Congressional Republicans have made clear they are wary of going anywhere near the $2.2 trillion proposal Democrats have put on the table. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, shortly after Trump called off the negotiations, said he agreed with the decision and has made clear, both publicly and privately to Trump himself, that many Senate Republicans were uncomfortable with the direction negotiations with Pelosi had been heading.

"The discussion from day to day can be confusing for all of us to follow," McConnell said of the roller-coaster that has been stimulus talks over the last several weeks. The Kentucky Republican has long said he's in favor of another rescue package, but has also made clear the differences between the two sides remain significant.

"We do agree that another rescue package is needed," McConnell said Thursday. "We have vast differences about how much we should spend."

Pelosi, for months, has made clear that the scale of the crisis -- both on the economic and public health side of things -- requires significant investment and the House passed a $2.2 trillion measure last week. Senate Republicans proposed a roughly $500 billion bill last month, which was blocked by Senate Democrats.

Mnuchin had put roughly $1.6 trillion on the table in the negotiations Trump short-circuited this week, but multiple people involved said Pelosi had made clear she was not going below $2 trillion given her view of the scale of the problems that needed to be addressed.

But beyond the need to reach an agreement on the topline number, the actual details and legislative language of a comprehensive agreement also remain far from completion, and would likely represent the most complex part of any negotiation.

There's also the issue of timing. Election Day is less than a month away, the House is out of session for the time being and the Senate, which has faced a mini-coronavirus outbreak of its own, is expected to return before the election primarily to focus on the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett.

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