That’s as close as anyone has come to a bipartisan discussion since negotiations formally broke down Friday between Pelosi and President Trump’s top advisers. It has left real doubt about whether Congress can pass any additional pandemic aid legislation until late September — if at all.
As he left his TV hit, McConnell said he had no updates. “No, I don’t know anything,” he said, offering to instead gossip about Joe Biden’s selection of Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) as his Democratic running mate.
Pelosi did not even get to opine on CNN, as the network bumped her appearance to keep up its coverage of the collapsing college football season.
After taking off her mic and walking away, Pelosi shook her head when asked whether she has had any talks with White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows or Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
“No,” she whispered.
That dynamic continued throughout Wednesday, as the Senate floor remained open for something known as “morning business,” a period during which senators can speak on any issue as no legislation is pending. In ways that can only happen in the Senate, this can happen at any time of the day, so this week “morning business” has taken place in the morning, the early afternoon and early evening.
Nothing else has happened.
Each morning, McConnell convenes a conference call of Senate Republicans, during which Meadows and Mnuchin update them on the now-shuttered negotiations. McConnell then opens the floor at 11 a.m. with speeches every day that take aim at Democrats for their demands for at least $2 trillion in economic and health relief to fight the coronavirus outbreak.
When McConnell finished his remarks at 11:11 a.m. Wednesday, five senators sporadically spoke over the next 100 minutes. At 12:51 p.m., the GOP leader ended the session, gaveling it out and setting up another 11 a.m. opening Thursday.
It was the third straight day the Senate session lasted less than two hours.
So little has happened this week that Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) did not attend Wednesday’s session, nor did Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) show up to formally open the Senate, a duty he usually treasures as the Senate pro tempore — a position that puts him third in the line of president succession.
The vast majority of senators headed home last week, told to remain on call for a possible vote if a deal were struck. Pelosi adjourned the House on July 31, with the same notice that they would have a day’s warning to travel back if there were a deal.
With no negotiations happening, no deal has emerged.
Pelosi placed the blame squarely on Meadows and Mnuchin for refusing to come close to Democratic demands for roughly $400 billion to help schools and colleges safely reopen, way above the $100 billion that McConnell initially offered.
“All of the documentation and justification is for more money for the schools,” Pelosi said in a brief interview after CNN bumped her, “but they simply won’t go there. And that’s one of our big [differences].”
She mocked outside observers who think it should be easy to find middle ground with Republicans. “Why don’t you resolve your differences? Our differences are vast and our members want us to get the best for our children,” Pelosi said.
Republicans have accused Democrats of overplaying their hand in the talks over the first half of August with the two Trump advisers, declining to take what Mnuchin has called a “skinny” deal on some areas of compromise.
What Democrats did not appreciate, ahead of this latest round of talks, was how dug in Republicans had become to another multi-trillion-dollar package, even if hurt Trump’s chances at reelection.
That broke against the early spring, when Trump’s approval ratings were stronger and his standing against Biden looked better. At that time, he sent his negotiators to Capitol Hill without any concern about the cost, cobbling together four deals that were worth nearly $3 trillion and received almost unanimous support.
Now, as they run into Trump-driven pandemic head winds, incumbent Republicans are running reelection campaigns almost exclusively on all the money those relief packages pumped into their state economies.
With the president unconcerned about the swelling federal debt, Democrats assumed GOP senators would see another big rescue package as another chance at a political lifeline, for themselves and for Trump.
Instead, as McConnell spent late July compiling a legislative offering of around $1 trillion, up to 20 Senate Republicans said they would oppose that proposal, splitting his caucus before the GOP had even begun to negotiate with Pelosi and Schumer, whose initial offering topped $3 trillion.
Each hundred billion the number went above $1 trillion left fewer and fewer Republicans willing to support the plan. So McConnell bowed out before the bipartisan talks even began, and by last Friday, Meadows and Mnuchin walked out of Pelosi’s office declaring that they could never meet Democrats’ demand for a $2 trillion package.
If Pelosi and Schumer were to settle on a “skinny” plan near the $1 trillion mark, they would still probably have to provide the lion’s share of votes for a plan that tilts much closer to the GOP wishes — something that is anathema to normal congressional negotiations.
Pelosi maintains that her caucus is not afraid of getting blamed by voters for gridlock, predicting they will blame Trump for not pushing for a bigger deal to meet the crises. “Our members are wholeheartedly behind America’s children, that they go to school safely, that they have food to eat, that they are not evicted from their homes,” Pelosi said Tuesday.
So now the two sides just show up at 11 a.m. each day and trade a few barbs during the Senate’s morning business.
As he left Wednesday, McConnell again made clear that Thursday would be a lot like the first three days this week.
“There’s, uh, nothing new to report,” he told reporters.