Stimulus Prospects Grow as Leaders Agree to Try for Year-End Deal

By Emily Cochrane and Nicholas Fandos

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, have agreed to try to reach a deal that could be included in a must-pass spending measure.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Friday that she and Senator Mitch McConnell had agreed to redouble efforts to find a deal that could be merged with an enormous spending package needed to keep the government funded beyond Dec. 11.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Friday that she and Senator Mitch McConnell had agreed to redouble efforts to find a deal that could be merged with an enormous spending package needed to keep the government funded beyond Dec. 11.Credit...Erin Scott for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — The prospects for an elusive bipartisan stimulus deal appeared to brighten on Friday as Speaker Nancy Pelosi projected fresh optimism that the House and Senate could come to terms and President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. prodded lawmakers to “act and act now” on a measure he insisted was within reach.

Even as liberal Democrats warned that the emerging compromise was woefully inadequate amid economic devastation wrought by the pandemic, Ms. Pelosi, Democrat of California, told reporters that she and Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, had agreed to redouble efforts to find a deal that could be merged with an enormous year-end spending package currently under discussion.

“That would be our hope because that is the vehicle leaving the station,” Ms. Pelosi said at a news conference in the Capitol Friday morning, a day after speaking with Mr. McConnell. He expressed similar resolve on Thursday.

After months in which the two top congressional leaders refused to budge from their respective positions, the shared goal marked significant progress — particularly as Ms. Pelosi appeared poised to accept a far smaller stimulus package than she had championed.

But while momentum has built behind a $908 billion plan outlined by a bipartisan group of moderates that top Democrats have embraced as the starting point for talks, significant hurdles remained. No actual bill has been written yet, and Mr. McConnell has yet to offer an explicit endorsement of a plan that is several times larger than what he has previously said Republicans could accept.

Mr. Biden said on Friday that he was “confident” that an agreement was possible, but pointedly declined to answer when asked by reporters whether he had spoken with Mr. McConnell, a negotiating counterpart with whom he has brokered many deals.

“It’s not going to satisfy everybody,” Mr. Biden said of the compromise plan, “but the option is, if you insist on everything, we’re likely to get nothing on both sides.”

Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent and former Democratic candidate for president, was among those who were not satisfied. He said Friday afternoon that he could not support the proposal without changes, deriding the inclusion of a liability shield for businesses operating during the pandemic as “a get-out-of-jail-free card to companies that put the lives of their workers and customers at risk.” He said the omission of another round of $1,200 direct payments to Americans was “unacceptable.”

“I look forward to working with my colleagues in the House and Senate to significantly improve this bill,” Mr. Sanders concluded. “But, in its current form, I cannot support it.”

The compromise proposal was offered by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Senators Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah and Susan Collins, Republican of Maine. The group and their aides are expected to continue working to finalize legislation through the weekend.

Stimulus talks have been stalemated for months, with lawmakers unable to resolve differences over issues like the liability protections, a Republican demand that Democrats have resisted, and providing federal aid to state and local governments, a top priority for Democrats that many Republicans oppose. They are also still struggling to resolve a number of policy disputes in the must-pass bills needed to keep the government funded beyond Dec. 11.

The emerging compromise would revive lapsed federal unemployment benefits at $300 a week for 18 weeks, and provide billions of dollars in funding for small businesses, schools and the imminent distribution of a vaccine.

“What I have real concerns about is the American people thinking Congress struck a deal, we’re getting Covid relief, and then their lives changing very little,” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, told reporters on Capitol Hill. “Will I support resources to hospitals and schools and firefighters? Absolutely. But I am extremely concerned that it’s not going to solve the immediate problems that people have.”

Though Ms. Pelosi conceded there were still obstacles to an agreement, she insisted there would be “sufficient time” to close a deal before the Dec. 11 government funding deadline. She pointed to lower-than-expected job gains reported on Friday as an added accelerant.

“There is momentum. There is momentum,” Ms. Pelosi said. “I am pleased that the tone of our conversations is one that is indicative of the decision to get the job done.”

After months of insisting she would not accept a slimmed-down relief bill, Ms. Pelosi now appears poised to accept less than one third of the spending Democrats initially proposed to prop up small businesses, help the uninsured and jobless, boost state and local governments, and meet immediate public health needs.

Mr. Biden and his advisers, faced with the prospect of the economy cratering even further before his inauguration on Jan. 20, have publicly pushed for lawmakers to reach agreement on a smaller package, promising more action in the coming months.

“To truly end this crisis, Congress is going to need to fund more testing as well as a more equitable and free distribution of the vaccine,” Mr. Biden said. “We’re going to need more economic relief to bridge through 2021 until this pandemic and economic crisis are over.”

Pressed on her reversal, Ms. Pelosi was defensive on Friday, saying her earlier, multitrillion-dollar proposals that Senate Republicans called nonstarters were “not a mistake” but important parts of a negotiating strategy that may now yield results. She insisted that Mr. Biden’s election and the looming arrival of two vaccines amounted to “a total game-changer.”

“President-elect Biden has said this package would be at best just a start,” she said. “That’s how we see it, as well. It is less money, but over a shorter period of time, and we need to do it to save lives and livelihood with the hope that much more help is on the way.”

Ms. Pelosi’s Republican adversaries portrayed her statements as an admission that she had put political considerations over those of American businesses and families. Representative Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California and the minority leader, called the remarks “despicable.”

“Anyone care to try and dispute the wasted time and damaged economy that came from this WASN’T flat out cynical politics on the Speakers part???,” Representative Bill Huizenga, Republican of Michigan, wrote on Twitter. “Workers and small businesses were crippled and we are in worse shape now because of it.”

Thomas Kaplan and Jim Tankersley contributed reporting.