Letters to the Editor • Opinion
The coronavirus might not be the worst of it
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

White House, Congress continue pressing on economic relief package but Pelosi bristles over Trump approach

Pelosi confronts Mnuchin on phone call about who speaks for the president

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) attacked President Trump on Oct. 8 for his posts on coronavirus spending bill talks. (Video: The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

The White House sent mixed signals Thursday about the direction of renewed stimulus talks, resulting in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi confronting Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin over who speaks for the president.

The developments occurred two days after President Trump ordered Mnuchin to stop negotiating with Pelosi, only to announce Thursday that talks were back on. Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Democrats were still ready to deal.

According to Pelosi’s spokesman, Mnuchin and Pelosi spoke by phone Thursday afternoon to discuss prospects for a comprehensive economic relief bill when White House communications director Alyssa Farah told reporters at the White House that the administration does not support legislation of that kind.

“We’ve made very clear we want a skinny package" consisting of stimulus checks, an airline bailout and small-business relief, “but not part of a larger package,” Farah said in comments distributed in a White House pool report.

Farah’s comments appeared to contradict what Pelosi had just heard from Mnuchin — which was that Trump supported reaching a more comprehensive deal, Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said.

“The Speaker pointed out that, unfortunately, the White House Communications Director contradicted that assertion during their call. The Speaker trusts that the Secretary speaks for the President,” Hammill said on Twitter.

A spokesperson for Mnuchin had no comment.

The exchange clouded prospects for a deal of any kind, comprehensive or otherwise, less than four weeks before the November elections.

Pelosi and Mnuchin had been discussing a package in the range of $1.6 trillion to $2.2 trillion before Trump pulled the plug on talks Tuesday — a decision he backpedaled on several hours later.

On Wednesday, Pelosi and Mnuchin began discussing a bill that would have been focused solely on helping airlines, but there was backlash from some Democrats and unions who questioned why airlines would get help but not others. By Thursday morning Pelosi made her demands for a new, broader package clear. She nixed the idea of passing a stand-alone bill to help solely the airline industry, which has recently begun large-scale furloughs because a federal aid program expired last week.

Pelosi said Thursday that any aid for the airline industry would be considered only if it was part of a larger relief package to meet other economic needs.

“The only point about negotiations is, ain’t gonna be no stand-alone bill unless there’s a bigger bill, and it could be part of that or it could be in addition to that,” Pelosi told reporters at her weekly news conference.

She said she and Mnuchin were still talking.

“We’re at the table. We want to continue the conversation," Pelosi said. "We’ve made some progress. We’re exchanging language. So we’ll see how we connect.”

Mnuchin has negotiated numerous spending and budget deals with Pelosi, but some Republicans in the White House and on Capitol Hill have been wary of the deals he cuts with Democrats. And the comments from Farah on Thursday gave some Democrats pause as they tried to discern the White House’s current strategy.

Still, there appears to be a new sense of urgency from the White House and some congressional Republicans to reach some agreement amid signs the economic recovery is weakening.

Trump said in a Fox Business interview that economic relief talks were back on track, citing his desire for another round of $1,200 stimulus checks in addition to airline aid and small-business assistance.

“Well, I shut down talks two days ago because they weren’t working out. Now they are starting to work out, we’re starting to have some very productive talks,” Trump said in the interview on Fox Business.

He said he believes Pelosi “wants it to happen, because it’s so good for our country, we really need it.”

As Washington fumbled relief talks, economy's cracks deepened in recent months

Despite all the muddle, the two sides appeared to be back to roughly where they were Tuesday morning, before Trump abruptly announced talks were over and he was asking Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to focus on filling the Supreme Court vacancy instead. McConnell, speaking in Kentucky on Thursday where he is campaigning for reelection, also talked about the need to approve additional aid.

“We’re going to tackle this again. The timing is uncertain based on the proximity to the election,” McConnell said at an event in Bourbon County.

The Senate majority leader suggested that even he had been perplexed by recent developments. “The discussion from day-to-day can be confusing for all of us to follow,” McConnell said.

Even before Trump initially killed the talks Tuesday, there was widespread pessimism about their ability to get a result, especially with the election just weeks away and scant legislative time to approve a deal even if one were reached.

The deal under discussion by Pelosi and Mnuchin in the past week would have included new $1,200 stimulus checks, renew enhanced unemployment benefits, and provide $75 billion for coronavirus testing and tracing, among other provisions. When talks broke off Tuesday, Democrats were pushing for language ensuring a wide-scale testing strategy. Pelosi said Thursday they were still waiting to hear back on that and that she had reminded Mnuchin of that.

One reason talks have continued is because of concern about the weak labor market, with an additional 840,000 Americans filing for unemployment claims last week, more than six months after the coronavirus pandemic began in the United States.

“We’re talking about airlines and we’re talking about a bigger deal than airlines. We’re talking about a deal with $1,200 per person, we’re talking about other things,” Trump said Thursday. “But it’s not anybody’s fault, they were trying to get things, and we were trying to get things and it wasn’t going anywhere, I shut it down. I don’t want to play games. And then we reopened, and I see the markets are doing well, but I think we have a really good chance of doing something."

It remains highly uncertain that any deal can be reached, on airlines or anything else. Talks have been on again and off again for months, but ultimately Congress and the administration have been unable to strike a deal since the spring, when they passed about $3 trillion in aid.

Multiple programs approved at that time have since expired, including enhanced unemployment insurance for individuals.

Millions brace for more layoffs, hunger and utility shutoffs as stimulus talks break down

The Cares Act from March included a Payroll Support Program for airlines that expired Oct. 1. Democrats have been pushing an approximately $25 billion bill to renew the program, but it’s unclear whether the administration supports the Democrats’ approach and Pelosi has now dropped the idea of advancing it on its own.

Some union leaders were angry over the prospect of Democrats advancing a bill just to help airlines when so many others also are in trouble — and they made their views known to Pelosi and other leaders.

“We know the airlines are hurting,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, but added that so are unemployed workers, small businesses, hungry children and many others. “We have taken the position that we have to try to get all of these needs met.”

The developments Thursday were just the latest confusing events in days full of them. While hospitalized at Walter Reed over the weekend, Trump tweeted a demand for a new stimulus bill, only to abruptly pull out of talks Tuesday, a day after getting released from the hospital.

He began backtracking within hours as a number of Republicans in tough reelection races criticized his move and urged him to re-engage.

Trump said Thursday he was hopeful the talks would bear fruit even though he commented that Pelosi is “not my favorite person, she impeached me for no reason.”

Pelosi returned the criticism, suggesting for the third day running that the president is mentally impaired in some fashion. Trump had been taking steroids among other medication.

“The president is, shall we say, in an altered state right now, so I don’t know how to answer for his behavior,” Pelosi said on Bloomberg TV.

She also announced that House Democrats would be discussing the 25th Amendment on Friday, which provides for removing power from the president, though she declined to say whether she believed it should be invoked.

Even as the Pelosi and Mnuchin talks have haphazardly rejoined, Trump administration officials and congressional Republicans have discussed a new, narrow legislative package they could potentially try to advance separately that could include $1,200 stimulus checks, support for small businesses and financial aid for the airlines, according to three people who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. Those are the policies Trump cited as priorities in his tweets abandoning broader stimulus checks earlier this week, as well as on Fox News on Thursday morning.

It was unclear what would come of that new effort, given that Democrats are unlikely to support legislation that excludes aid for the unemployed and state and local governments. The push could aim to force Senate Democrats to take difficult votes to reject largely popular forms of financial stimulus. However, it could also be resisted by conservative Republicans who are skeptical of spending more federal funds fighting the virus.

Larry Kudlow, the president’s chief economic adviser, said on Fox News on Thursday that the administration needs Congress to approve additional unemployment aid and support for schools.

“The president believes we should shift into stand-alone bills to get the key points through,” Kudlow said. “These are vital, targeted assistance areas that would strengthen the economy.”

In a letter sent Thursday to House and Senate leaders, Amtrak urged swift passage of a measure that would extend government support for the passenger railroad, warning that without additional funding by the end of the year it would need to cut an additional 2,400 jobs, further reduce train service and defer major capital projects.

Michael Laris, Lori Aratani, Moriah Balingit and Luz Lazo contributed to this report.