Pelosi, Mnuchin talk coronavirus aid as presidential illness complicates picture

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin spoke by phone for about an hour on Monday on coronavirus economic relief and were preparing to talk again Tuesday, continuing their recent flurry of activity working towards a deal on legislation.

“The two discussed the justifications for various numbers and plan to exchange paper today in preparation for another phone call tomorrow,” Pelosi’s spokesman Drew Hammill wrote on Twitter.

The renewed effort in Congress to reach a agreement to pump coronavirus relief funds into the pandemic-hit economy has been further complicated by the news last week that President Donald Trump and three Senate Republicans have tested positive.

Word about the senators prompted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to announce over the weekend that the chamber would be out until Oct. 19, suggesting he did not see an imminent deal on the bill following a week of talks between Pelosi and Mnuchin. The House is also out.

But Pelosi and Mnuchin talked daily last week and met in person on Wednesday in an effort to negotiate a new bipartisan aid package to respond to the economic fallout from a pandemic that has infected 7.4 million Americans, killed more than 209,000, and thrown millions out of work.

“We’re making progress,” Pelosi told NBC’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday.

Trump has been hospitalized here at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center since Friday night. The Republican president is seeking a second term in November.

Congress and the White House approved more than $3 trillion worth of coronavirus relief measures earlier this year, but no new relief has been passed since the spring. Mnuchin, as well as members of Congress from both parties, have said more stimulus is needed, a point bolstered by an unexpectedly weak September jobs report on Friday.

Democrats have proposed spending $2.2 trillion. The Trump administration has called that “unserious,” but raised its offer to close to $1.6 trillion last week, including a $400 weekly pandemic jobless benefit. Democrats want $600 a week.

Although Trump has urged a deal publicly, it is unclear how involved he will be behind the scenes while he is ill. There have long been varying degrees of enthusiasm for more coronavirus spending within his own administration, and it is uncertain which faction may dominate now.

Mnuchin has appeared more bullish about an agreement than White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, a hard-line conservative former U.S. representative who generally opposed deficit spending and was known more for undercutting legislative deals than making them.

But Meadows, who has been working with Trump at the hospital, told Fox News on Monday that Trump is committed to getting a new coronavirus deal done. “I do think that there is the potential for a deal as long as politics do not get in the way again,” Meadows said.

Familiar hurdles to agreement remain. In a letter to her fellow Democrats on Friday, Pelosi outlined disputed areas with Mnuchin, including aid to state and local governments, unemployment insurance, provisions on testing and tracing, and Democratic demands for a child tax credit.

Democrats have a majority in the House of Representatives, but Pelosi faces pressure from moderate Democrats running for re-election in swing districts to bring a bipartisan deal to the floor before Election Day.

In the Senate, Republicans have a 53-47 majority, but some Republicans are not keen on another big-spending coronavirus package, meaning any plan will need bipartisan support to pass.

Reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Scott Malone and Grant McCool