U.S. coronavirus aid prospects uncertain after Trump blasts Democrats

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - High-level negotiations on a new coronavirus aid bill faced a setback on Wednesday when President Donald Trump accused Democrats of being unwilling to craft an acceptable compromise, despite reports of some progress earlier in the day.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi adjusts her face mask as she announces her plans for Congress to create a "Commission on Presidential Capacity to Discharge the Powers and Duties of Office Act," after U.S. President Donald Trump came down with coronavirus disease (COVID-19), during a Capitol Hill news conference in Washington, U.S., October 9, 2020. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo

Trump, who has recently called for more stimulus as he trails in national opinion polls ahead of next month’s election, blasted House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a tweet after she pushed for a roughly $2 trillion proposal with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

It was unclear whether the negotiations would continue or go dormant until after the Nov. 3 presidential and congressional elections.

Trump’s tweet came amid deep opposition among Senate Republicans to a large new coronavirus stimulus bill that would aid Americans and businesses impacted by the pandemic. Some conservatives worry that another big government expenditure could hurt their November election prospects by adding to rapidly rising budget deficits.

Trump on Twitter said he did not believe Democrats “will be willing to do what is right for our great American workers, or our wonderful USA itself, on Stimulus.”

Trump’s accusation came shortly after Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff, Drew Hammill, said in a tweet that Pelosi and Mnuchin had spoken for 48 minutes and their conversation “brings us closer to being able to put pen to paper to write legislation.”

Pelosi said earlier that a key provision sought by Democrats, money to help state and local governments grappling with the pandemic, was still unresolved.

At the same time, Republicans in Congress have questioned whether Pelosi actually wanted to reach a deal before the election or preferred to wait until after Nov. 3 when Democrats might have the upper hand if they win the presidency and more seats in Congress.

Earlier in the day, Pelosi told MSNBC that she wanted the bill to pass before Nov. 3, although her Republican counterpart, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, has not been an enthusiastic supporter.

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“I want people to know, help is on the way,” she said.

Trump’s attack on Democrats was one more turn in a bewildering negotiation that has seen the president previously call an end to negotiations, only to subsequently say that he urgently wanted a deal and one that was even bigger than Democrats had been seeking.

Pelosi and Mnuchin have been hammering out the details of a relief package that could be in the range of $2.2 trillion, the number Democrats have been pushing for months.

McConnell does not want to bring a large coronavirus aid bill to the Senate floor before the election, a senior Republican aide said, as he focuses on trying to confirm Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett.

Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, said Wednesday the White House was now looking at $1.9 trillion in relief. Meadows spoke to Fox News after lunching with Republican senators, who he said were concerned about the policy as well as the cost of a new package.

“I don’t think our chances get better after election,” Meadows told Fox.

Some Senate Republicans also said Wednesday that it might be more difficult to get a relief package passed after the election.

“If we’re going to do it this year, I think it’s now or never,” said Senator Roy Blunt.

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Other Republicans continued to express concern about the proposals under discussion.

Senator Steve Daines, who is in a tight re-election race in Montana, said a “big bone of contention” was the Democrats’ proposed spending on state and local governments, saying he objected to the idea that some states with budget problems would be “bailed out” by others.

“We want to get something passed, but having Montana taxpayers bail out California and New York is not the right thing to do.”

Senate Republicans have proposed smaller, targeted aid to help an economy reeling from the pandemic, which has infected 8.3 million Americans.

But Democrats seem just as determined not to go along with targeted aid proposals when a larger comprehensive deal appears in reach. A $500 billion Republican aid plan failed to clear a procedural hurdle in the Senate on Wednesday, as Democrats voted to block it.

After quickly passing more than $3 trillion in relief early this year, aimed at addressing the heavy human and economic toll of the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress has failed to pass any new measures since April to respond to a disease that has killed more than 221,000 Americans.

Reporting by Susan Cornwell and David Morgan; additional reporting by Doina Chiacu, Susan Heavey, Susan Cornwell, David Morgan and Steve Holland; Writing by Richard Cowan; editing by Scott Malone, Sonya Hepinstall, Jonathan Oatis, Aurora Ellis and Cynthia Osterman