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The coronavirus might not be the worst of it
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

By appearing to pull the plug on coronavirus stimulus, Trump makes life much harder for his party

President Trump announced on Oct. 6 that he had ordered negotiations on an economic relief bill to stop until after the election. (Video: Reuters)
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The irony for vulnerable Republicans is that before President Trump suddenly pulled the plug on coronavirus relief talks Tuesday, Democrats were feeling significant political pressure to find a deal. That helped bring House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) back to the table with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, even though she had already shared her final offer.

But with a couple tweets Tuesday afternoon, the president risked putting the blame for a lack of coronavirus aid right back on the Republican Party.

He took ownership of these talks ending by explicitly telling Mnuchin to stop negotiating with Pelosi until after the election. Pelosi called Mnuchin after the tweets, The Washington Post’s Erica Werner and Jeff Stein reported, and he confirmed it was true their negotiations were over. It was reminiscent of when Trump said he would be “proud” to shut down the government in late 2018 over a border-wall spending battle with Democrats.

Trump confusingly tweeted later Tuesday evening that he wanted separate bills to help airlines and the unemployed, and his top aides were out Wednesday morning discussing “piecemeal” spending bills. But unless he completely reverses himself on a broader deal, vulnerable members of Congress have to face an election empty-handed with a narrative developing that the president is the driving factor for why a deal isn’t coming now. The extraordinary pressure that puts on Republican members of Congress was evident in statements from three such vulnerable lawmakers, who pointed the finger at the president.

“Waiting until after the election to reach an agreement on the next covid-19 relief package is a huge mistake,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said in a statement after Trump’s announcement. If she loses reelection, Republicans could lose the Senate majority.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), in an increasingly tight race for reelection where his Democratic challenger is hammering him for not doing more to help South Carolina, tweeted his support for a fuller package than Trump seems to want.

Here’s Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.), a moderate Republican who is running in a Democratic-leaning district:

Coronavirus relief talks were already going slowly, and with each passing day it seemed a longer shot that there would be a deal to inject more money into businesses, schools and state governments, and as much as $1,200 into people’s bank accounts.

But there was still the possibility that something would materialize, which the stock market and regular people were holding onto. A September New York Times-Siena College poll found 72 percent of voters supported a stimulus, including a majority of Republicans.

There was also the question of which party would be blamed the most if Washington failed to get a deal. House Democrats passed a $3.5 trillion relief bill in May, and another $2 trillion bill last week over Republican objections. Senate Republicans voted on their own much smaller proposal with $300 billion in new spending. But neither side budged enough on big issues like whether to give state and federal governments money, or how much extra unemployment benefits to give out.

Still, Pelosi and Mnuchin kept talking, and those talks were speeding up these past few days as airlines threatened major furloughs.

It’s not clear why Trump decided things were over. In his tweets, the president blamed Pelosi for rejecting a White House offer. But that’s part of negotiating; both sides have been rejecting the other for months.

Trump said no deal would happen until after the election. Maybe he’s calculating Democrats will fold under their own political pressure as they go home and face voters.

They’re certainly feeling that, but Democrats have also seen polls go their way in recent weeks in the battle for the Senate majority and as they try to add seats to their House majority. As Democrat Joe Biden expands his lead over Trump, it’s Republicans who seem more and more pinched.

Also, if Trump is playing hardball, his track record with shutting the door and hoping Pelosi knocks on it isn’t great. It was he who ended the longest federal government shutdown in history without getting what he wanted.

It’s also possible Trump is suddenly concerned again about the deficit. No Republican wants to spend billions or trillions of dollars right before an election, but economists — including the chair of the Federal Reserve — are warning that businesses and households are in dire shape with the pandemic nowhere near over.

The reality is Republicans are in charge of two of the three institutions that need to come together for there to be a deal. The president — and his party — are usually held responsible by voters when the economy is struggling. Trump just made that more likely when he pulled the plug on any talks for a stimulus deal to try to help.

Scott Clement contributed to this analysis.