Congress deadlocked on stimulus as lame duck begins

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Prospects for a new stimulus bill this year just about hit rock bottom on Thursday.

Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer said they have no plans to budge from their position of demanding a $2 trillion coronavirus relief measure, and no less. Barely an hour later, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell rejected their approach in remarks to a pair of reporters.

The GOP leader said that he still believes a bill of about $500 billion is the way to go, even though Senate Democrats have repeatedly rejected his proposal. He said the improving economy only makes it clearer the Senate should do something “highly targeted at what the residual problems are.”

“I gather [Pelosi] and the Democratic leader in the Senate still are looking at something dramatically larger. That’s not a place I think we’re willing to go,” McConnell said. “But I do think there needs to be another package. Hopefully we can get past the impasse we’ve had now for four or five months and get serious.”

That leaves no clear way forward on the negotiations, even as the country sees record infections and a rise in hospitalizations and deaths from the virus. Pelosi’s talks with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin faltered in late October, and they have not spoken since the election.

Senate Republicans appear favored to keep the majority next year unless Democrats can run the table in two Georgia runoff races. That gives McConnell little apparent incentive to come up to Pelosi and Schumer’s demands. But Democrats have made clear they would not scale back their ambitions for a broader package.

Pelosi has said she has no interest in a stimulus deal that is only $500 billion. Standing next to Pelosi at the Thursday news conference, Schumer called McConnell’s approach “emaciated.”

"Our position is the same it has been all along," Pelosi told reporters when asked if her position had changed since the election. "We’re at the same place. Even more so.”

Pelosi and her top deputies have come under pressure from the centrist faction of their caucus to make a deal with the White House, with some Democrats saying they’d be willing to consider a series of piecemeal bills. Those calls have resurfaced after an election that cost House Democrats seats, with moderates urging immediate action as coronavirus cases surge.

But the majority of the House Democratic caucus would likely refuse to advance a slimmer package now, especially with President-elect Joe Biden just months from taking office. Many Democrats still believe they can reach a better deal with a president of their own party, even with a shrunken majority in the House.

The Trump administration, meanwhile, is concentrating more on President Donald Trump’s legal fights to overturn the election results than a new stimulus bill. After months of talks between Mnuchin and Pelosi, there’s been little apparent movement since October.

Even as some jobs return, millions remain unemployed. Democrats have warned for months that a delay in passing new relief could undermine the economy, though deficit-minded Republicans have resisted another massive package after passing one in the spring. Several Democrats have also voiced concern that waiting to pass another stimulus bill could hamper the early months of Biden’s presidency in an even more deadlocked Congress.

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