WASHINGTON: The renewed effort in the US Congress to reach a fresh deal to pump coronavirus relief funds into the pandemic-hit economy has been further complicated by the news that President Donald Trump and three Senate Republicans have tested positive.
Word about the three senators' results prompted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to announce over the weekend that the chamber would be out until Oct 19, suggesting he did not see an imminent deal on the Bill following a week of talks between Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
Pelosi and Mnuchin talked daily last week and met in person on Wednesday (Sep 30) in an effort to negotiate a new bipartisan aid package to respond to the economic fallout from a pandemic that has infected 7.4 million Americans, killed more than 209,000, and thrown millions out of work.
"We're making progress," Pelosi told NBC's "Face the Nation" on Sunday.
"OUR GREAT USA WANTS & NEEDS STIMULUS. WORK TOGETHER AND GET IT DONE. Thank you!" Trump tweeted on Saturday from the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where he has been hospitalised since Friday night. The Republican president is seeking a second term in the Nov 3 presidential election.
Congress and the White House approved more than US$3 trillion worth of coronavirus relief measures earlier this year, but no new relief has been passed since March.
Mnuchin, as well as members of Congress from both parties, have said more stimulus is needed, a point bolstered by an unexpectedly weak September jobs report on Friday.
Democrats have proposed spending US$2.2 trillion. The Trump administration has called that "unserious", but raised its offer to close to US$1.6 trillion last week, including a US$400 weekly pandemic jobless benefit. Democrats want US$600 a week.
Although Trump has urged a deal publicly, it is unclear how involved he will be behind the scenes while he is ill. There have long been varying degrees of enthusiasm for more coronavirus spending within his own administration, and it is uncertain which faction may dominate while he is hospitalised.
Mnuchin has appeared more bullish about an agreement than White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, a conservative former US representative who generally opposed deficit spending.
Familiar hurdles to agreement remain. In a letter to her fellow Democrats on Friday, Pelosi outlined disputed areas with Mnuchin, including aid to state and local governments, unemployment insurance, provisions on testing and tracing, and Democratic demands for a child tax credit.
Democrats have a majority in the House of Representatives, but Pelosi faces pressure from moderate Democrats running for re-election in swing districts to bring a bipartisan deal to the floor before Election Day. That was evident when 18 Democrats voted against the Democratic US$2.2 trillion proposal in the House last week.
In the Senate, Republicans have a 53-47 majority, but some Republicans are not keen on another big-spending coronavirus package, meaning any plan will need bipartisan support to pass.