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Stimulus negotiations: Talks are stalling out

A bipartisan group of negotiators is still stuck on how to craft liability protections. Republican leaders are signaling their conference can never support the state and local aid Democrats want.

(CNN) — With eight days to go until another spending deadline, the prospects of Congress agreeing to, writing and voting on a massive stimulus proposal before Christmas are slim.

A bipartisan group of negotiators is still stuck on how to craft liability protections. Republican leaders are signaling their conference can never support the state and local aid Democrats want, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer are still insisting the only way forward is to put their faith in an amorphous, bipartisan gang.

The bottom line: These talks are falling apart as millions of Americans are desperate for some — even temporary — relief. The bipartisan group of lawmakers is still meeting and trying to find a solution. It’s just that the window for them to find the sweet spot is closing. Republicans are making it clear they don’t like aspects of that proposal. Democrats are still insisting it’s the only way forward. We have officially entered the phase in these talks when aides on both sides are beginning to speculate the other party never wanted a deal to begin with. That’s not a good place to be.

The calendar

We have eight days until the next spending deadline. There still isn’t a deal on an omnibus bill to fund the federal government. There still isn’t a deal on a stimulus package to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Congress has already given itself a one-week extension. If a deal is going to come together on stimulus, it needs to come together in principle by the end of the weekend to reasonably be added to the spending bill and passed by Friday. Even that is pushing it. That’s not a whole lot of time for leaders to call a truce, get in a room and hammer the rest of this out.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already signaled he would be willing to cut a deal right now that includes school funding, another round of Paycheck Protection Program loans, extended unemployment insurance benefits, transportation funding and an extension of the eviction moratorium. Those items are easy to draft onto a bill and don’t take much time given they have broad, bipartisan agreement. But, if Democrats insist on state and local and have to negotiate on liability, a week wouldn’t be enough time at this point unless some serious concessions are made on both sides over the next 48 hours.

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Republican opposition began to grow Wednesday to the bipartisan framework. Last week, members of GOP leadership were keeping the door open to the proposal. Now, they are making clear it’s time for Pelosi and McConnell, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Schumer to get in a room and finish this up. Their preference is to leave the two biggest sticking points for another day’s fight.

Senate Majority Whip John Thune, a Republican from South Dakota, told reporters Wednesday that money for state and local governments “bleeds” Republicans and “the bipartisan group provided a good foundation, kind of a place to start from … the real negotiations on what can ultimately pass the House, the Senate, and get signed need to get underway.”

When asked if he thought there would be a deal on stimulus Wednesday, Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn said: “How do I put this gently? I’m not going to be the one making the decision. It’s going to be Nancy Pelosi, Kevin McCarthy, Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell.”

Pelosi does not like being told how to negotiate

CNN told Pelosi on Wednesday that “a lot of Republican senators are arguing that you and McConnell just need to get in a room and iron this out.”

“Is that what they think?” she asked. “Good for them. Tell them to go meet with McConnell.”

The sticking points

They are the same as they’ve been for months.

  • State and local funding
  • Liability protections

And to a lesser extent

  • Whether to include a round of stimulus checks sent directly to Americans, similar to the ones from earlier this year

What happens next?

We are still waiting on whether the bipartisan group can manage to find a solution on liability insurance and state and local funding. Aides familiar with the negotiations have been telling CNN that they are close. But they’ve been close all week.

An important reminder is that even if the members can agree among themselves on a way forward with those two provisions, that still doesn’t mean the rest of the Republican conference or the rest of the Democratic caucus would support it. It’s a point that has been laid out to me by GOP aides for the last 10 days: Republican members who are in the bipartisan group are highly respected members of the conference, but they are not representative of the group at large in terms of policy. Maine and Alaska operate very differently politically than Alabama and Nebraska. And on the Democratic side, a deal Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia is willing to cut on liability may not be a deal that Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, can vote for.

The bipartisan group was always intended to be a way to break the logjam, put some ideas on paper and get leaders talking again. They have definitely accomplished that. It’s just important to remember that their plan isn’t likely to be the final deal even if they get a breakthrough on liability Thursday or Friday.

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