Stimulus talks: A bipartisan plan is coming Tuesday but it’s unlikely to break the ice as funding deadline looms

It’s been months of haggling, backing away from negotiations, getting the gang back together and still a stimulus deal has proven elusive for Capitol Hill.

The forces of partisanship aren’t going to make that any easier now.

Republicans are dug in and very much aware that Democrats would prefer a deal now in an effort to give President-elect Joe Biden a clean slate in January. The party to watch right now isn’t Republicans, it’s Democrats and just how much they are willing to give to ensure Biden can start his Presidency with some kind of economic recovery bill already in his rearview mirror.

If something is going to happen, the time is now for those negotiations to ramp up. And there will be a bit of movement Tuesday.

What is happening: One bipartisan effort ramps up

Leadership aides are talking about what might be able to be attached to the omnibus spending bill that funds the government and faces a December 11 deadline for passage.

A bipartisan group of members is ramping up their own calls to act. Tuesday, one of those groups, which has included Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski, Mitt Romney, Bill Cassidy and Susan Collins and Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin, Mark Warner, Jeanne Shaheen as well as independent Sen. Angus King, will have an announcement at 10 a.m. ET on a proposal they hope will kickstart those talks.

The group met before Thanksgiving in person and kept up over Zoom during the Thanksgiving break. They met again on Monday night.

Let’s keep this development in context: There is no guarantee that even their agreement will move the needle or win over leadership. However, their efforts are some of the only signs of progress we are seeing on Capitol Hill right now so they can’t be completely ignored.

According to one aide familiar with the talks, members in the group have aimed to try to find the areas they could agree on: extending unemployment benefits, expanding school funding, providing money for more testing and vaccine distribution and re-upping another round of the Paycheck Protection Program. These are ideas that members have rallied around for month. This is just the first time senators are putting pen to paper. The group had also been looking at ways to agree on state and local funding and liability, but those are areas that have been tougher.

What you still haven’t seen: Ultimately, the House and Senate are all about leadership and those talks still are stalled. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy haven’t been in a room hashing out the details for hours on end. In fact, the top negotiators here haven’t met since the election to try and come together. That’s not a great sign when you consider how leadership-driven the last stimulus bills have been.

Why this week matters so much

There are only two weeks left on the legislative calendar. That doesn’t mean members couldn’t stay longer on Capitol Hill and try to sort out an agreement before Christmas. But, the only hope for a stimulus deal right now is to attach it to the spending bill that has a deadline of December 11.

Congress might be able to kick the can down the road for a few days, but at the end of the month, there is a massive cliff when the expiration of unemployment benefits, student loan payment deferrals and a federal eviction moratorium all run out.

Add to that the reality that this isn’t a normal year. This is a year when a pandemic is threatening the very place where the deal has to get done. Dozens of members have gotten sick, and as cases spike around the country, members are even less inclined to stick around the Capitol. Sometimes, Congress likes to cancel a recess and look like they are trying just for the sake of optics. With a pandemic raging around them and in their very midst, no one has an appetite for that.

What leadership is saying

Language surrounding these talks appears to be softening. Here’s McConnell and Schumer on the floor on Monday saying a deal should get done before lawmakers depart for the holiday. Note the calls to come together.

  • McConnell: “There is no reason — none — that we shouldn’t deliver another major pandemic relief package.”
  • Schumer: “We need to come together. Both sides must give.”

Another important shift happening on the Hill right now

While progress among leaders remains elusive, Democratic senators are opening up to a smaller Covid-19 relief deal. How small is another question entirely, but multiple Democratic members CNN spoke to on Monday night said a deal is so crucial, they would be willing to find something between Republicans’ $500 billion proposal and Pelosi’s $2 trillion bill if it meant coming home with a deal.

There are a lot of motivations for this. For one, members want to deliver Biden something before he takes office. The other factor? People are really hurting and folks are ready to try and come to the table.

“It’s incredibly important we have an agreement,” said Sen. Gary Peters, a Michigan Democrat. “I don’t want to negotiate publicly, but we gotta get something done.”

“I think the most important thing about any package is … it’s going to be very targeted to where you want the money to go,” said Jon Tester, a Democrat from Montana. “Now, it can’t be so small … where you’re going to have people running around saying gee what’s up with that, where it really doesn’t get the job done.”

Pressed on if he could back something less than $2 trillion, New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez said, “It depends how it’s divided up. It’s possible.”

King also said “yes” when asked if he could support less than $2 trillion.

You can also expect that House Democrats are going to ramp up pressure on Pelosi when House members return Wednesday. One freshman, Democratic Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota, told CNN before Thanksgiving that his support for the speaker was going to be contingent on whether or not she could deliver a stimulus bill before the end of the year.

“I need to see a Covid relief bill passed before the end of the year,” he said. “There is no higher priority.”