Reporters had a decision to make in Washington last week.
Should they track the hour-by-hour convulsions of whether President Trump would participate in the next debate – or if there would even be a next debate? Or, was it easier to follow the erratic vicissitudes of President Trump and whether negotiations to secure a coronavirus deal were on or off?
In a Twitter screed last Tuesday, Trump announced he was ordering Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to suspend negotiations on a coronavirus package with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. Of course, the president often claims credit for surges on Wall Street. He made his pronouncement when the market was open. The proclamations immediately prompted a selloff.
“Immediately after I win, we will pass a major Stimulus Bill,” augured Trump.
The president also “asked (Senate Majority Leader) Mitch McConnell (R-KY) not to delay, but to instead focus fulltime on approving my outstanding nominee to the United States Supreme Court.”
Pelosi and Mnuchin had spoken multiple times a day for a couple of weeks. So 40 minutes after the president purportedly scrapped talks, Pelosi and Mnuchin promptly chatted again. And they talked again the next day. Plus, the day after that. And the day after that.
These guys reverse field more than Lamar Jackson eluding a defensive end.
By Friday, the Trump administration announced it was nearing an agreement. The White House put forth a proposal totaling $1.8 trillion, a significant uptick from the $1.5 trillion to $1.6 trillion it previously offered.
“This is a breakthrough, and it happened this morning,” said White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow.
During an appearance on Fox, Kudlow added “the president has said I would like to do a deal.”
Trump was soon back on Twitter.
“Covid Relief Negotiations are moving along. Go Big!” he ordered.
Keep in mind that Trump and Pelosi haven’t spoken in about a year. Trump hasn’t been part of the negotiations at all. Talks between Pelosi and Mnuchin began again, mainly because people saw an avalanche of layoffs hurtling down the mountain at the start of the month. That was coupled with pressure from some bipartisan House lawmakers and Republicans – as well as some Senate GOPers facing challenging reelection bids – to amp up discussions to secure a deal before the election. They argue there is need – plus, it’s just good politics.
But as soon as Trump torpedoed the talks last week, he owned it. One could question the wisdom of making an announcement to cancel the talks while the market was still open. One could also question the political wisdom of deliberately sabotaging talks in the middle of a pandemic just weeks before the election.
Ironically, Wall Street continued to lap up news of a deal or no deal, reflexively rallying and receding based on optimism or pessimism of the hour.
Let’s be crystal clear: if there was a chance for the sides to get a deal, it would have happened already – a long time ago. Oct. 1 triggered the layoffs. That stoked the talks, linked with the election speeding down the path. If those two factors alone didn’t force a deal, it’s doubtful there ever would be a pact.
Nothing in these negotiations has moved since May. The only difference is that Pelosi, Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows began conversations in July and August – then things fell silent again until late September.
Still, Pelosi and Mnuchin have been unyielding in their dialogue.
But there were whispers – and outright bellowing on Capitol Hill from rank-and-file Republicans and even GOP leaders. They were suspect of Mnuchin and what he was willing to accept to get a deal with Pelosi. That’s to say nothing of the price tag.
There’s a reason the ultra-skinny coronavirus bill McConnell attempted to advance in the Senate weeks ago was a scant $300 billion. Republicans have repeatedly told Fox that they didn’t like Mnuchin’s proposal of an additional $400 for those off the job. They thought that would pay some people more to stay at home.
“The writing of it, all of that, does take a while,” said McConnell. “Depending on what the agreement is, how complicated it is, how long it takes to write it. I couldn’t tell you exactly when it would pass.”
Even in the middle of a pandemic, McConnell reverted to what Trump said in his Tuesday tweet-storm, putting the kibosh on the talks.
“The first item of priority of the Senate is the Supreme Court,” said McConnell.
And the majority leader doubts they can get anything done, certainly before the election.
Yours truly asked Pelosi Thursday if she believed Mnuchin was truly deputized to negotiate on behalf of the president.
“This is not an academic discussion. If he’s not speaking for the president of the United States, there’s no reason to have the conversation. I trust that he is, and I trust that he wants to understand the differences so we can try to find common ground, and hopefully we will,” replied the speaker.
Trump contributed to the whiplash during an appearance on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show Friday.
“I would like to see a bigger stimulus package than, frankly, either the Democrats or the Republicans are offering,” said the president. He even acknowledged that his position on Friday was “the exact opposite” of what he asked for earlier in the week.
So let’s fillet this $1.8 trillion proposal.
By Saturday morning, McConnell convened a conference call with Senate Republicans, Mnuchin and Meadows. Senate GOPers served administration officials their heads on a platter. Republicans abhorred the $1.8 trillion offer.
There’s a reason McConnell tried to advance a svelte $300 billion measure back in September.
But even though Senate Republicans torched the administration’s machinations to get a deal, the president blamed someone else by Sunday morning on Fox.
“We’re having a hard time with Nancy Pelosi,” said Trump. “The Republicans want to do it. We want to do stimulus.”
The president then said Republicans were “ready to go. We’re all ready to go. We can’t get Nancy Pelosi to sign the document.”
Ready to go? Republicans? On a bill which costs how much? And what is this “document” to which the president refers? Or, is this one of those things he suggested were discarded in “rivers” and “creeks”? That’s where Trump alleged they found ballots during his debate with Joe Biden.
If there is to be an agreement, it will hinge, as it always does, on “the math.”
The first part of the math deals with the cost.
House Democrats passed a $3.4 trillion bill in May. Pelosi eventually sliced her request for this round of spending to $2.2 trillion. The administration and some Republicans were mired at $1 trillion to maybe $1.6 trillion. So, the administration bumped up its offer by a lot.
There has always been a “ceiling” and a “floor” in these talks. The White House had been at $1.6 trillion – $1.8 trillion now. That was their ceiling. Democrats were at $2.2 trillion. That was their floor. The problem was the crawlspace in between. Go much above $1.6 trillion, and you start to lose GOP votes. Go much below $2.2 trillion, and there is Democratic attrition. The sides lack the proper “vote cocktail” to pass a bill, let alone in both chambers.
Republican lawmakers have relentlessly told Fox for weeks that the higher the price tag, the fewer Republicans who are willing to vote yea.
So let’s say the Republican number does climb – perhaps significantly. First of all, that means Pelosi “won.” She gets the dollar figure she wants. Secondly, a costlier bill means more Democrats will vote yes.
Now we have a conundrum:
Are they really going to advance a bill which has minimal support from House and Senate Republicans – yet relies mostly on Democratic votes to pass? And the Republican president is actually going to sign that?
If it comes to that, then Pelosi really did prevail in these negotiations.
Don’t forget that Trump sided with Pelosi over McConnell and former House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., on a government spending bill in 2017. And it’s pretty clear who won the lengthy 2018-2019 government shutdown, too.
Even if they cut an agreement, it would take four to five days to develop legislative text on a bill of this magnitude. A bill of this dimension probably has to cook for a few days so members of both bodies can decide if they’ll support it. That probably takes another three or four days.
There is almost no way to get this done before the election – even if there were to be an agreement. Nothing has moved since May.
But a seminal moment is coming: the election. The election could tip the scales – whether lawmakers and the Trump administration forge an agreement to battle coronavirus in a lame duck Congress. Or whether a new administration and a new Congress work something out next year.
Chad Pergram currently serves as a congressional correspondent for FOX News Channel (FNC). He joined the network in September 2007 and is based out of Washington, D.C.