Senate closes in on massive, bipartisan deal to address coronavirus crisis

Pelosi says the House could act in a matter of hours.

With temperatures running hot on Capitol Hill, congressional leaders and White House officials said Tuesday they are on the verge of a bipartisan agreement on a massive package to respond to the economic crisis created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

After a couple of false starts where the Senate failed on votes to advance to debate on the stimulus bill, which is expected to top $2.5 trillion, Senate leaders said negotiators are closing in on the end zone.

"This majority has gone out of its way to make this process as bipartisan and as open as possible, the administration has bent over backwards to work with Democrats and address their concern," Majority Leader Mitch McConnell McConnell, R-Ky., said. "Now at last I believe we are on the five-yard line."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell walks to the Senate chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 24, 2020.
Patrick Semansky/AP

“Last night, I thought were on the five-yard line. Right now we’re on the two,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., agreed. “At this point, of the few outstanding issues I don’t see any that can’t be overcome within the next few hours.”

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Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, incoming White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, and White House Legislative Affairs Director Eric Ueland returned to the Capitol Tuesday morning – shuttling between the Senate offices of McConnell and Schumer.

PHOTO: Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, left, with White House Legislative Affairs Director Eric Ueland and acting White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, walks to the offices of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Capitol Hill, March 24, 2020.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, left, accompanied by White House Legislative Affairs Director Eric Ueland and acting White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, walks to the offices of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky. on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., March 24, 2020.
Patrick Semansky/AP

Mnuchin said the group had already spoken to President Donald Trump twice Tuesday morning, adding they planned to hold conference calls “with a bunch of Republicans to update them on where we are.”

“We’re looking forward to closing a bipartisan bill today. The president wants us to get this done today,” Mnuchin said. “We’re down to a small number of issues and we look forward to a successful vote.”

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Though there are strong indications the Senate will close in on a deal Tuesday, President Donald Trump nudged negotiators to get it done, warning the lack of a deal continues to hurt the country.

While it appears the Senate is preparing for vote Tuesday night, nothing has been officially announced so far, as leaders work to educate their rank and file while the legislative text is drafted at a furious pace.

“We need to explain where we are to Senate Republicans, walk through language and make sure they’re comfortable - anytime where there are a few outstanding issues where we are not quite done,” Ueland said.

One major concession Republicans have accepted is a $500 billion credit facility they’re standing up just for the crisis - facilitated by the Treasury Secretary - to help troubled businesses. Leaders are working to implement what one senior administration official called a “three-legged stool” of transparency measures modeled after oversight measures implemented during the Great Recession a decade ago.

“This is an awesome undertaking,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the upper chamber, explaining that the bill will be bigger than the one year’s federal budget for domestic discretionary spending.

“We’re doing it in a matter of days. When it comes to the federal budget, we spend a year, sometimes longer putting it together,” Durbin, D-Ill., said on the Senate floor. “In this case, we are writing a bill of that magnitude in a matter of days because it is a compelling challenge and it should happen.”

McConnell expressed hope that the Senate would successfully vote to move forward on the phase three stimulus bill Tuesday, but again slammed Democrats - warning that time is up.

"The clock has run out. The buzzer is sounded. The hour for bargaining as though this were business as usual has expired," McConnell declared, maintaining his criticism of Democratic proposals which he said included new emissions standards and solar panels.

McConnell urged the Senate to move forward with the bill to ensure American's had secure access to paychecks, and blamed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for interrupting the Senate's bipartisan talks.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi makes a statement about the government's response to coronavirus disease (COVID-19) from the Speakers Lobby on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 23, 2020.
Joshua Roberts/Reuters, POOL

Pelosi sounded optimistic Tuesday morning about the prospects for the Senate bill, proclaiming there is “real optimism that we could get something done the next few hours.”

“We have unanimous consent, and this can move quickly. If we don't have unanimous consent, my two options with my members is to call them back to vote to amend this bill, or to pass our own bill and go to conference with that,” Pelosi, D-Calif., explained on CNBC’s Squawk Box Tuesday morning.

After a week of delay since the Senate began crafting the third phase of its relief efforts, Pelosi seemed ready to compromise, acknowledging there are ongoing concerns but none are “deal breakers.”

“The easiest way to do it is for us to put aside some of our concerns for another day and get this done,” she said, expressing hope that the lower chamber could approve the Senate deal by unanimous consent and avoid calling hundreds of members back to the Capitol from districts spread out across the country. “I think we are on a good track. I think the Senate Democrats have moved the bill to a place that I say the leverage is more fairly distributed between employers and workers, and that my goal always has been to bring this bill to the floor under unanimous consent, where we're all in agreement.”

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