Senate Democrats block slimmed-down pandemic relief bill

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday downplayed chances of Congress passing a big new economic stimulus bill before the election, even as Democrats voted to block a slimmed-down GOP relief measure in the Senate.

The vote in the Senate was 51-44 along party lines, well short of the 60 votes that would have been needed to advance the approximately $500 billion measure. It was practically the same outcome as last month, when Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., tried to advance a nearly identical bill in the Senate.

McConnell and Senate GOP leaders largely oppose a giant new spending bill in the range of $2 trillion, which President Donald Trump has been demanding and Pelosi has been negotiating with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. With the election now less than two weeks away, the path for getting anything passed beforehand is disappearing, although Pelosi has said that’s her goal.

Senate GOP leaders argued that their approximately $500 billion bill was the appropriate response, and would have provided at least some help to needy Americans who’ve been waiting months for more relief from Congress as layoffs mount and coronavirus cases rise. The bill includes new money for small businesses, schools, health care systems and the unemployed, but omits Democratic priorities such as state and local aid—as well as $1,200 stimulus checks for individuals supported by Trump.

The legislation “would move us past Speaker Pelosi’s all-or-nothing obstruction and deliver huge support right now for the most pressing needs of our country,” McConnell said ahead of the vote.

Democrats and many Republicans have said major problems continue to exist in the economy months after the coronavirus pandemic spread across the United States. But they are divided on what kind of federal response to pursue.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called the vote a political stunt that was designed to fail, saying the legislation “leaves so many Americans behind.”

At the same time, Pelosi, D-Calif., voiced optimism about her continued talks with Mnuchin on the much larger measure sought by Trump. But—a day after McConnell disclosed he had counseled the White House not to strike a deal with Pelosi before the election, partly because it might interfere with the Senate’s planned confirmation next week of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court—the House speaker acknowledged that final passage might have to wait until after Nov. 3.

“We obviously want to have a deal by Nov 3rd. That really is going to be up to whether the president can convince Mitch McConnell to do so,” Pelosi said in an interview on Sirius XM radio. “I think Mitch McConnell might not mind doing it after the election.”

White House chief of staff Mark Meadows joined Senate Republicans for a closed-door lunch on Wednesday, as GOP senators continued to voice opposition to a massive new spending bill.

“Obviously there are a number of senators that have concerns over the amount we’re spending,” Meadows told reporters as he exited the lunch, adding: “There are some that think we’re not spending enough.”

A few Republicans in tough re-election fights, such as Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., do support passing a big new relief bill—though not necessarily the one taking shape between Pelosi and Mnuchin. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, another senior lawmaker who is up for re-election, told reporters that it’s not just the size of the bill but some of the policies it contains.

Senate Republicans have blasted a number of items under consideration including expanding Affordable Care Act tax credits and sending stimulus checks to undocumented immigrants.

“I think part of the problem is that people have just been focusing on the top line. There’s more than just the top line, it’s the substance that we haven’t been talking about or focusing on,” Cornyn told reporters.

“Part of the message from Senate Republicans is we need to have a discussion about the substance and whether irrespective of the top line whether the policy makes sense,” Cornyn said.

Trump has adopted one stance after another on the Mnuchin-Pelosi talks, at one point calling them off altogether but more recently demanding even more money than Democrats have proposed spending, and criticizing Mnuchin for failing to “bring home the bacon.”

Some Senate Republicans said it was unclear why exactly Meadows came up to Capitol Hill after lawmakers have made their views well known on another stimulus bill.

“Maybe he just needed to get out of the White House, I don’t know,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.

Blunt also voiced pessimism about prospects for advancing significant relief legislation during Congress’ “lame duck” session that will take place after the election. He said getting anything done during a lame duck is always difficult.

“If we’re gonna do it this year, I think it’s now or never,” Blunt said.

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