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Future of coronavirus relief bill uncertain as White House and Democrats continue negotiations

McConnell rules out vote on COVID bill
McConnell rules out vote on COVID bill as Trump hits campaign trail 16:20

Washington — The White House and Speaker Nancy Pelosi inched closer to a deal on coronavirus relief legislation this week, but Republican senators' opposition to a large bill continues to present a roadblock in negotiations, dimming prospects for Congress to pass a bill ahead of the election.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin signaled on Thursday that the White House is willing to compromise with House Democrats over a provision on testing in a relief proposal, saying that he would tell Pelosi "we're not going to let the testing issue stand in the way" of crafting a deal. But Senate Republicans have indicated that they would be unwilling to consider such a large package.

A spokesperson for Pelosi wrote Thursday on Twitter that the speaker and Mnuchin had spoken for nearly an hour and a half that afternoon.

"The Speaker and Secretary Mnuchin spoke at 3:30 p.m. today for 1 hr, 22 mins. The Secretary stated he would accept Democrats' language for a national strategic testing plan with "minor" edits & that language would be shared tomorrow. The Speaker looks forward to reviewing," Drew Hammill, Pelosi's deputy chief of staff, wrote. Hammill said that Pelosi "raised Leader McConnell's comments today about not being willing to put a comprehensive package on the Senate floor."

"The Secretary indicated that the President would weigh in with Leader McConnell should an agreement be reached," Hammill wrote. According to the timing described in Hammill's tweet, Mr. Trump would have sent his tweet condemning Pelosi while Mnuchin and Pelosi were still speaking.

Pelosi had previously rejected a $1.8 trillion proposal by the White House, arguing that it did not go as far as the $2.4 trillion relief measure passed in the House last month. But there's another obstacle — the number Mnuchin and Pelosi are negotiating is far higher than the one Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is willing to consider.

McConnell said last month that the idea a $2 trillion bill would be considered the a GOP-controlled Senate is "outlandish."

McConnell said that the Senate will vote on its own slimmed-down coronavirus relief proposal later this month. He told reporters in Kentucky on Thursday that "we're in discussions with the secretary of the Treasury and the speaker about a higher amount," but said "that's not what I'm going to put on the floor."

When specifically asked if there could be a compromise within a $2 trillion range, McConnell said "I don't think so."

"That's where the administration's willing to go. My members think what we laid out, a half a trillion dollars, highly targeted, is the best way to go," McConnell said.

Nonetheless, President Trump blamed Pelosi for any delays in negotiations in a tweet Thursday evening.

"Pelosi is holding up STIMULUS, not the Republicans!" Mr. Trump wrote. Mr. Trump has urged Congress to "go big or go home" on coronavirus legislation. The president said in an interview Fox Business earlier on Thursday that he would be willing to go above $1.8 trillion for a final deal.

"I would, absolutely I would. I would take more. I would go higher," Mr. Trump told host Stuart Varney. He also claimed that such a large bill would get support from Republicans, which is far from certain.

Pelosi said in a letter to her Democratic colleagues on Thursday evening that "Democrats will stay at the table for as long as takes to reach agreement to honor our heroes, crush the virus and put money in the pockets of the American people."

"House Democrats know firsthand how necessary it is to come to agreement. To our constituents, we promise: HELP IS ON THE WAY. It will be safer, bigger and better, and it will be retroactive," Pelosi wrote. "We must come to agreement as soon as possible, but not before we are truly helping the people without accommodating the Republicans' surrender to the virus."

Mnuchin said Thursday morning the White House and Democrats have agreed to $178 billion overall for health measures, with $75 billion going to testing and contact tracing, and to $28 billion for vaccines and distribution. He said the White House would not move forward with a deal on testing without additional funding for the Paycheck Protection Program. 

Some members of Congress are pushing Pelosi to come to a deal with the White House. Democratic Congressman Ro Khanna and Congressman Tom Malinowski have both publicly urged Pelosi to accept the $1.8 trillion. Pelosi pushed back against any opposition in an interview with CNN on Tuesday, saying that she was the one in charge of negotiations.

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