WASHINGTON – Bitter negotiations for a new coronavirus stimulus deal dissolved into an ugly blame game by the time lawmakers left Washington late last week with no deal, no progress to report and no plans to return until September.
By the end, the two sides refused to even meet.
The disaster of those failed discussions hangs over both parties as they shift their attention to two weeks of national political conventions, which likely would push a deal until sometime well after Labor Day.
That means that while political leaders party, unemployed Americans will have to do without the bolstered benefits that have allowed them to make ends meet; cash-strapped state and local governments will be left in the lurch; and uncertainty will continue to linger over a series of executive orders made by President Donald Trump that aimed to offer some relief.
The optics are a big concern for endangered lawmakers seeking reelection, who now have to answer to voters back home about why their leaders and the White House have been unable to strike a deal as a deadly contagion continues to take its toll across the country.
“When the relief ran out, I do think that there was a hope, probably almost an expectation, by people that Congress would come together and get it done,” said Rep. Susan Wild, a Pennsylvania Democrat who flipped a red seat in 2018. “And so when there wasn’t, I think there was … sort of a state of disbelief.”
Said Ross Baker, professor of political science at Rutgers University-New Brunswick: “It’s not a good picture for members of Congress facing reelection to take into November.”
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Giving a political victory to the other side?
Both Democratic leaders are set to attend the Democratic National Convention, which starts Monday, meaning in-person discussions on a coronavirus package are unlikely to happen. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., will speak Wednesday night, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., will be attending the convention virtually.
The offices of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., declined to say if they would be attending the Republican National Convention next week, though they have attended the events in the past.
Political conventions traditionally have been pep rallies for activists and party officials in a raucous convention hall while supporters watch on television. The parties adopt a platform to showcase their priorities and highlight the vast differences with the other side.
But this year the events will be drained of much of their hoopla and inspiration, Baker said.
“Instead of a teeming convention hall with brass bands and balloon drops, the conventions will be more like online corporate conferences dressed up with fake back-drops,” he said.
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Even so, “the prospect of Congress’ failure to pass an additional package of relief measures and not getting the appropriations done is very grim,” Baker said.
Political conventions are largely about projecting a message going into the fall’s elections.
“Neither party wants to give the other what would be spun as a political victory during their convention week,” said Kent Syler, a political scientist at Middle Tennessee State University and a former Democratic congressional aide.
Schumer, Pelosi, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows negotiated for weeks trying to reconcile the Democrats’ roughly $3.4 trillion plan with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s $1.1 trillion package. Both proposals included $1,200 direct payments for struggling Americans, billions for schools trying to reopen and money for businesses trying to stay afloat.
The inaction prompted Trump to sign four executive orders to continue some aspects of earlier stimulus bills, but they did not address all the relief sought in talks. After he signed the orders, the two sides continued to blame the other side for the impasse.
Americans have become somewhat numb to these kinds of “political mud fights,” Syler said, but there are risks for both parties.
“Incumbents running for reelection have the most to lose if voters decide that Washington is broken,” he said. “This fact is not lost on those participating in this political drama. It may ultimately be this fear of voter rebellion in November that gets us a deal.”
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A tough position for endangered lawmakers
Wild’s office has been consumed by calls from those who thought more financial relief was on the way.
Wild, a freshman, said she worries about the message the stalemate was sending to Americans, who are being lobbied by each party to vote for their candidates, noting she was “starting to grow pessimistic.”
“I’ve been hoping for weeks now that the imminent election would make people more more apt … to get something done,” she said, adding that her worry was that by Election Day, “the mood of the American people could be, you know, they should all be thrown out, and you know, government is useless to us.”
She acknowledged it was hard to fathom a bipartisan compromise occurring over the next two weeks as both parties attend events that stress the plethora of differences between them, but she said she was holding out hope.
“If anything, I think it motivates both parties a little bit more to keep talking,” she said.
Wild is one of many endangered lawmakers facing intense pressure back home over the stalled relie. She expressed a sense of “frustration” with both Republicans and Democrats leading the negotiations, something echoed by fellow swing-state Democrats, and has called for Congress to take up smaller bills instead of a bigger package.
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Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., said the blame for the stalled stimulus talks falls on Republicans.
“It’s totally ridiculous,” he said, referring to McConnell criticizing Democrats as being uncompromising. He noted most Republicans rejected House Democrats’ plan when it was passed in May.
Jones, who represents a state Trump won by nearly 30 percentage points in 2016, had been optimistic but now said he felt “complete pessimism” about a deal being reached before Labor Day.
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Asked about the optics of his planned speech at the Democratic National Convention amid the congressional gridlock, Jones said he was “comfortable” with the message he would be delivering.
“I’m not going to agree with all the messages that are going to be delivered,” he said. “But I think overall, the message is going to be one to unify this country.”
Rep. Andy Kim, D-N.J., who represents a suburban Philadelphia district he flipped in 2018, was also trying to be “hopeful” about a deal being reached but was still frustrated about the lack of a compromise.
He said he has been getting calls every day from constituents wondering when aid would arrive.
“We know the American people do not have the luxury of pushing off their problems for a month or two,” he said.
Kim laid the blame on Republicans and the Trump administration for the impasse in negotiations and for waiting so long to introduce a GOP proposal.
“That lack of willingness to negotiate and compromise is frustrating,” he said. “Both parties come together, and look, at the end, nobody’s gonna get 100% of what they want.”
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The stalled talks and Pelosi’s lead role in the impasse could be helpful for some Republicans, including Rep. Jeff Van Drew, who blamed the Democratic speaker over the stalled aid.
The first-term New Jersey Republican is facing a tough reelection in his district, a race that has been closely watched nationally because of the congressman’s move to quit the Democratic Party and join Republicans during Trump’s impeachment late last year.
Van Drew said in an interview that he couldn’t understand Pelosi’s refusal to meet last week with Mnuchin over remaining differences on the overall price tag for the bill.
“Why would you refuse to meet with him?” he said. “Sit down, meet with him, keep going over and over and over and over it again. He gives a little, you give a little and you work it out.”
Van Drew acknowledged that the timing of the conventions and the approaching election were not helpful in the talks but said the pandemic should rise above the typical bickering.
“You know, sometimes an issue comes along that is so powerful and so problematic, that you really have to focus on that alone, and you have to forget about the politics and you have to forget about elections, and you just have to get that done,” he said. “People expect their leaders at certain times to be bipartisan.”
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronoavirus stimulus: Party conventions complicate stalled talks