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Second stimulus check: US coronavirus relief bill update

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is "optimistic" of a bipartisan coronavirus stimulus deal before the election, but a White House spokesperson says it may yet take "weeks".

FILE PHOTO: U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) speaks about stalled congressional talks with the Trump administration on the latest coronavirus relief during her weekly news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., August 13, 2020. REUTERS/Sara

Nancy Pelosi is still "optimistic" that a coronavirus stimulus deal can be done ahead of the presidential election, a spokesperson for the House speaker said on Monday.

However, getting legislation through before next Tuesday's nationwide vote looks like being a very tall order.

Pelosi, Mnuchin hold 52-minute conversation on stimulus bill

Amid months-long talks with representatives of Republican President Donald Trump over a bipartisan economic-relief package, Democratic negotiator Pelosi continued discussions with US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin on Monday, the speaker's Deputy Chief of Staff Drew Hammill said.

"The Speaker and Secretary Mnuchin spoke today at 2:00 p.m. by phone for 52 minutes," Hamill tweeted, adding: “The Speaker remains optimistic that an agreement can be reached before the election.”

Testing and tracing program a stumbling block

While both sides appear to be in agreement on issues such as the distribution of a second round of stimulus checks of up to $1,200 to qualifying Americans, the implementation of a national coronavirus testing and tracing program is proving a major sticking point.

Speaking to MSNBC’s All In on Monday, Pelosi said: "About ten days ago they [the White House negotiators] finally said, 'Okay, we'll go along with the testing plan. We're just going to make a light touch on the language.'

"The light touch was taking out 55% of the language, changing 'must' - we are saying you 'shall', the administration 'shall' do this, they 'shall' - to the administration 'may' do this. 'Requirements' became 'recommendations' and the like, so that the money would be just, again, a slush fund for the president so that he may do this, or may do that, rather than requiring it.

"But we thought, okay, this is just a power play. Then they made a fuss, they came back and said, 'Alright, we're there with you.' But they still have not come back."

Hamill said: “As the nation faces record spikes in new COVID cases, we continue to eagerly await the Administration’s acceptance of our health language, which includes a national strategic plan on testing and tracing.”

Other hurdles to an agreement are Democrats' push for funding for the US Census and election systems and for financial aid for state and local governments, in addition to Republicans' eagerness to protect businesses from coronavirus-related lawsuits.

"Very, very slim" chance of bill before election - GOP senator

Negotiators also remain apart on their desired overall spend, but are edging closer. While Pelosi has held out for an outlay of over $2tn, with House Democrats passing a $2.4 proposal in the lower chamber at the start of October, the White House has sought a lower amount, but has now upped its offer to $1.9tn.

As the two sides continue to haggle, however, it seems increasingly unlikely that an agreement will come with enough time left for the bill to then be passed by both the House and the Senate, and signed into law by Trump, before the election.

Indeed, White House Director of Strategic Communications Alyssa Farah hardly fueled optimism of an imminent stimulus deal when she told Fox News on Tuesday that she hoped it would come "within weeks".

Also speaking to Fox, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany agreed that the odds of a pre-election accord were low, blaming Pelosi for making excessive demands. "The chances are slim when you have someone like Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House, when you look at the proposal they put forward and it still stands today," McEnany said, per Reuters.

Matters are further complicated by the fact that the Senate has now left Capitol Hill after confirming Judge Amy Coney Barrett on the Supreme Court.

"We’ll come back in November," Republican Richard Shelby, a senator from Alabama, said on Monday, according to Bloomberg. “The question might be, will there be something then?” Shelby added, describing the possibility of a bill going through ahead of the election as "very, very slim".

And even if the Senate were to be recalled before Tuesday to vote on a bill, it remains unclear that it would get past the Republican-held upper chamber, where GOP members have shown a reluctance to embrace a substantial stimulus spend. Indeed, they have twice tried and failed to push through a ‘skinny’ bill worth just $500bn.

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows was upbeat on the chances of a larger bipartisan bill making it through the Senate, though, telling CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday: “I do have a commitment from Leader [Mitch] McConnell that if we have an agreement, he’s willing to bring it to the floor and get it passed.”

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