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Stimulus Deal: Pelosi Reports Progress as McConnell is Against Proposal

WASHINGTON — Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, privately told Republican senators on Tuesday that he had warned the White House not to strike a pre-election deal with Speaker Nancy Pelosi on a new round of stimulus, moving to head off an agreement that President Trump has demanded but most in his party oppose.

Mr. McConnell’s remarks, confirmed by four Republicans familiar with them, threw cold water on Mr. Trump’s increasingly urgent push to enact a new round of pandemic aid before Election Day. They came just as Ms. Pelosi offered an upbeat assessment of her negotiations with Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, telling Democrats that their latest conversation had yielded “common ground as we move closer to an agreement.”

The cost of their emerging compromise on a new round of aid to hard-pressed Americans and businesses has steadily climbed toward $2 trillion, inching closer to Ms. Pelosi’s demands even as it far exceeds what most Senate Republicans have said they can accept.

With coronavirus cases continuing to rise across the country and tens of millions of American families and businesses going without critical federal benefits they relied on for much of the year, economists and the chair of the Federal Reserve have said now is the time for a substantial infusion of federal money to fuel a still-shaky economic recovery.

A majority of voters agree, saying they would support a $2 trillion stimulus package. And Mr. Trump, who only two weeks ago scuttled the bipartisan talks, is now also pushing urgently for Congress to “go big,” as he grasps for political advantage in the waning days of his re-election race.

Yet the developments on Capitol Hill amounted to an extraordinary scene two weeks before the election, in which a badly weakened president — once the object of unwavering loyalty from congressional Republicans, who rarely broke with him on any major policy issue — was throwing concessions at Democrats to cement a deal that his own party was resisting.

“He’ll be on board if something comes,” Mr. Trump said of Mr. McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, on Tuesday morning on “Fox and Friends.” “Not every Republican agrees with me, but they will.”

Mr. McConnell’s comments, which were earlier reported by The Washington Post, to his colleagues a few hours later suggested otherwise.

With the deficit ballooning to $3.1 trillion, conservative Republicans say they cannot stomach another huge federal pandemic relief measure. Republicans also fear that a vote on such a measure would force vulnerable senators who are up for re-election into a difficult choice of openly defying the president or alienating their base by embracing the big-spending bill he has demanded.

Above all, Republicans fretted that a vote on such a package could interfere with their hasty timetable for confirming Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court by early next week. Mr. McConnell said he told the White House he was particularly concerned that a deal before then could inject unwanted unpredictability into the schedule, according to the four Republicans.

Their reservations suggested that even as a long-awaited stimulus deal between Democrats and the White House could be coming together, the aid still might have to wait until after Nov. 3.

“The mechanics of getting the deal done would be challenging, to say the least,” Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Senate Republican, told reporters. He suggested that the “fog of the election” was warping the talks and would ultimately prevent any action before Nov. 3, adding that “people have gone to their battle stations.”

Ms. Pelosi appeared pleased with the direction of the talks, hailing what she described in a letter to Democrats on Tuesday evening as a productive dynamic in which “both sides are serious about finding a compromise.”

“We’re not just down to a difference of language or a few dollars,” Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, warned in an interview on CNBC, declaring that Ms. Pelosi herself remained the biggest obstacle to a deal. “We still have a ways to go, but I would say that the conversations today were productive enough to continue to have discussions tomorrow.”

The latest White House offer would cost nearly $1.9 trillion, White House officials said, nearly four times the size of the $500 billion package that Senate Republicans hoped to advance on Wednesday in a bid to show voters that they were willing to provide some aid — just not what Democrats and Mr. Trump have been discussing. (Democrats were likely to object to the package as inadequate and prevent it from clearing the 60-vote threshold it would need to advance.)

Mr. McConnell’s remarks about a larger deal were described by four Republicans familiar with the discussion, who spoke on condition of anonymity to disclose details of a private closed lunch. He made it clear that he knew his counsel was likely to leak out, making reference to the possibility that his remarks could appear in the news media, two of the Republicans said.

Publicly, Mr. McConnell put out a different message, saying the Senate would consider any deal the White House was able to reach with Democrats, though he did not elaborate on the timetable or whether he would support it himself.

“If a presidentially supported bill clears the House at some point, we’ll bring it to the floor,” Mr. McConnell said at a news conference.

But on Tuesday, he was proceeding on a different track. Mr. McConnell forced a test vote to revive a popular lapsed small-business program, the first of multiple votes this week on stimulus relief intended to pressure Democrats, who have largely resisted narrow aid measures, to support something smaller. (Five Democrats joined with Republicans to endorse the procedural maneuver.)

Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, called the votes “a stunt, plain and simple.”

Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

“After putting the Senate on pause for five long months while businesses closed, millions lost their jobs and hundreds of thousands of Americans died, Leader McConnell is now using this week to hold show votes on coronavirus relief,” he said on the Senate floor. (Mr. Schumer, in an effort to slow efforts to confirm Judge Barrett, repeatedly tried his own procedural maneuvers to adjourn the Senate and end the chamber’s work before the election.)

It remained unclear whether Ms. Pelosi and Mr. Mnuchin could reach a deal in time for both chambers to approve the legislation. Ms. Pelosi, in an interview on Bloomberg TV, noted that legislative text would need to be finished by the end of the week in order to meet the timeline.

But she insisted she was optimistic, signaling that Democrats had planned to put forward a counteroffer on liability protections and funding for state and local governments, two of the most significant sticking points, and were willing to drop some demands, including funds for election security funding.

“We’re on a path — you have to be optimistic,” Ms. Pelosi said. “As the secretary and I say to each other, if we didn’t believe we could get this done, why would we even be talking to each other?”

Ms. Pelosi has instructed committee chairmen and staff to resolve additional differences on funding levels and language.

Staff from the appropriations committees in both chambers met on Monday to discuss a pot of aid that would include funding for such things as the Indian Health Service, transit systems, and community and mental health grants, according to two people familiar with the discussions. But the talks quickly stalled in part because Republicans said it was unclear what Ms. Pelosi and Mr. Mnuchin had agreed to.

“We have no particulars to work on,” Senator Richard C. Shelby, Republican of Alabama and the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, told reporters on Tuesday, a characterization that Democratic aides later disputed. “It’s getting real late.”

“It’s getting to be toward the last minute,” he added. “The clock keeps ticking away. I am not optimistic about us doing anything.”

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