Senate packs up with virus relief bill on ice until after elections

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U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin departs from the office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at the U.S. Capitol on Sept. 30. He met with Democrats and Republicans about coronavirus relief legislation, but Congress is now on recess until after the election with no aid passed.
TASOS KATOPODIS/GETTY IMAGES/TNS

BY DAVID LERMAN
CQ-ROLL CALL/TNS

WASHINGTON  — Senators prepared to leave town on Oct. 23 night for their October recess with virtually no prospect of passing new COVID-19 aid legislation before the Nov. 3 elections.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin spoke by phone for 52 minutes on Oct. 23 in what has become a near-daily attempt to narrow differences on pandemic relief between Democrats and the Trump administration. But there was no indication of any major progress.

Democrats “continue to eagerly await the Administration’s acceptance of our health language, which includes a national strategic plan on testing and tracing,” Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammilll tweeted after the call. And Hammill suggested that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-  Ky., who has resisted a large-scale aid deal, would need to show a greater willingness to compromise.

“It is clear that our progress depends on Leader McConnell agreeing to bipartisan, comprehensive legislation to crush the virus, honor our heroes — our essential workers — and put money in the pockets of the American people,” Hammill said.

Hopes diminished

While Hammill said Pelosi “remains optimistic” about reaching a deal before the elections, the speaker made clear that her hopes had diminished over the weekend, when White House chief of staff Mark Meadows  told CNN that “we’re not going to control the pandemic” but would await a vaccine.

In a letter to her caucus Monday, Pelosi said “the Administration crossed another line in its arrogance in fighting the coronavirus.” And before Monday’s phone call, the California Democrat said in her letter the administration still had not agreed to Democratic terms for virus testing and tracing, despite earlier promises.

“In all of our legislation, we have stressed the importance of testing, but the Administration has never followed through,” she said.

“The  Republicans’ continued surrender to the virus — particularly amid the recent wave of cases — is official malfeasance.”

Republican senators, meanwhile, had no expectation of any pandemic relief deal this week as they focused on confirming Amy Coney Barrett  to be the next Supreme Court justice Monday night before heading home until after the elections.

The cost

CGOP  senators have balked at any deal that could cost roughly $2 trillion, as contemplated by Democrats and the Trump administration. As if to underscore their resistance, they pushed their own $519 billion aid bill, which Democrats blocked last week.

“ Nancy Pelosi refuses to move off the mark because she’s not interested in compromise right now,” Sen. Rob Portman, R- Ohio, told  Fox Business Network. “So, after the election, I think we’re going to get together and figure this out. And we should, because there’s actually some things we can do to help — both to deal with the virus, but also to deal with the economic realities.”

Talks have stumbled for weeks over both the size and shape of a new aid package, even as the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 now exceeds 225,000, according to Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

Initial unemployment insurance claims have declined from the millions submitted every week this past spring, but at 787,000, last week’s claims were still well above the pre pandemic record of 695,000 set in 1982.

‘Political calculations’

Democrats  have sought more robust funding for state and local governments, while Republicans oppose “bailouts” for poorly managed states.

Republicans  have pushed for liability protection for employers from pandemic-related lawsuits, while Democrats say workers’ rights must be preserved to ensure safe job sites.

“I wish that we could pass relief when we know it’s most needed,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R- W.Va., told reporters Monday. “But the political calculations on the other side are preventing that.”

The Senate is scheduled to be in session the week of Nov. 9, except for Veterans Day which is that Wednesday. The House won’t be back until the following week.

CQ-Roll Call’s  Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.

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