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White House Signals Higher Stimulus Offer; Powell Urges More

(Bloomberg) — The White House gave a strong indication on Wednesday that it is willing to increase its pandemic-relief offer in talks with Democrats and that Senate Republicans should go along in order to seal a stimulus deal in the next week to 10 days.

Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said President Donald Trump is open to the compromise $1.5 trillion stimulus proposal from a bipartisan group of House lawmakers that was an effort to break a months-long deadlock over bolstering the U.S. economy amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The long-shot plan from a 50-member group of House Democrats and Republicans has a bigger total spending figure than the administration previously endorsed. It’s also higher than what Senate GOP leaders say would be acceptable to Republicans.

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell also weighed in, saying at a news conference that while the recovery has been faster than expected in the past 60 days, “there’s certainly a risk” the economy could slow without more stimulus.

“My sense is that more fiscal support is likely to be needed,” Powell said. He said about 11 million people are still out of work, small businesses are struggling and state and local governments have seen revenues drop.

Meadows said on CNBC that the $1.5 trillion proposal is not a “show-stopper.” But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has called it insufficient, while Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the chamber’s second-ranking Republican, said that large a stimulus would cause “a lot of heartburn” among GOP lawmakers.

Trump on Twitter urged Republican lawmakers to accept a higher level of spending than the last proposal made by the Senate GOP.

After initially proposing a $1 trillion stimulus at the end of July, Senate Republicans attempted to advance a bill providing $650 billion in economic aid, without the direct payments to individuals that the president — and Democrats — want.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declined to comment when asked about Trump’s call for Republicans to go higher. Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer released a statement saying they were “encouraged” by Trump’s endorsement of higher spending. “We look forward to hearing from the president’s negotiators that they will finally meet us halfway,” they said.

Stimulus negotiations have been handled by Pelosi, Schumer, Meadows and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

Pelosi and Mnuchin spoke on Wednesday afternoon to discuss the status of talks on a temporary funding bill to keep the government operating after the fiscal year ends Sept. 30. Those negotiations are being kept separate from the stimulus stalemate. However Pelosi’s spokesman said she also reiterated the points made in her statement with Schumer about Trump backing a bigger package.

The Problem Solvers Caucus plan was developed over six weeks with the knowledge of the White House and leadership from both parties. But the track record of bipartisan groupings of moderates in either the House or Senate in brokering major deals has been poor in recent years.

The proposal offered compromises on the thorniest issues in the stalled talks. On aid to state and local governments, the group is backing about $500 billion, splitting the difference between the $915 billion sought by Pelosi and Schumer and the $150 billion put forward by the White House.

Read more: House Moderates Unveil $1.52 Trillion Bipartisan Relief Plan

Meadows said the $500 billion figure is more than the White House estimates that states have lost in revenue because of the pandemic, but added that the administration could accept a figure in the $250 billion-$300 billion range.

The increased flexibility telegraphed by Meadows comes with the election just 48 days away, with Trump still running behind Democrat Joe Biden in polls. While the president has sought to run on a platform of a strong economic recovery, a report Wednesday showing a slowdown in U.S. retail sales growth underscored the impact of fiscal stimulus running dry.

Another fault line in talks has been the level of supplemental jobless benefits. The Problem Solvers proposed $450 a week for eight weeks, and then a transition to benefits of 100% of salary or $600, whichever is lower. That is a compromise between the $600 flat rate Democrats want — the same as expired in July — and the $300 Trump has backed.

Under the Problem Solvers plan, total spending could increase to about $2 trillion if the pandemic continues, or shrink to $1.3 trillion if it subsides more quickly. The White House had previously been willing to back about $1.1 trillion.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer on Tuesday said Democrats shouldn’t agree to less than $2 trillion. A group of House Democratic chairmen issued a statement criticizing the Problem Solvers proposal as inadequate. Pelosi earlier on MSNBC Wednesday reinforced her demand for $2.2 trillion.

Republican Divisions

“We did come down,” Pelosi said of her willingness to compromise. “We can only go so far.”

Trump’s new push for a deal highlights continuing divisions among Republicans, some of whom are reluctant to spend more money on stimulus with the national deficit reaching $3.3 trillion this year.

Missouri Republican Senator Roy Blunt said a number higher than $1 trillion could be the basis for an agreement, if it can be done quickly.

“I think there is a deal to be had here,” he told reporters at the Capitol. “My concern is that the window probably closes around the end of this month. And we need to get busy finding out what we can all agree on.”

But other senators resisted the idea.

Ron Johnson of Wisconsin said the Senate GOP bill, which costs about $300 billion when its cuts to Federal Reserve loan authority are counted, is the right amount.

“The president has his opinion. We have ours,” he told reporters.

“I need to see what it would be for and how it would be spent,” John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican, said. “And if a bill is chock full of spending porn as Speaker Pelosi’s bill is, I’m not going to vote for it.”

(Updates with Pelosi and Mnuchin discussion on government funding in 11th paragraph)

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