[WASHINGTON] President Donald Trump said he wants an even bigger stimulus than what Democrats have offered so far, seeming to undercut his own negotiators, who had prepared a US$1.8 trillion offer to make to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi today.
"I would like to see a bigger stimulus package, frankly, than either the Democrats or the Republicans are offering," Mr Trump said on Rush Limbaugh's radio programme, saying he's going in the "exact opposite" direction from his earlier stances.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was heading into talks with Mrs Pelosi on Friday carrying a White House offer of US$1.8 trillion for economic stimulus, according to people familiar with the matter.
Mrs Pelosi has proposed a US$2.2 trillion plan, down from the US$3.4 trillion package the House passed in May, but many Republicans in Congress have said they would oppose any plan approaching that size.
"I'm telling you something I don't tell anybody else because maybe it helps or maybe it hurts negotiations," Mr Trump told Mr Limbaugh.
"I would like to see a bigger package." It's an about-face by Mr Trump, who said on Tuesday he was pulling out of the pandemic relief talks. It comes with the election three weeks away and polls showing him trailing Democrat Joe Biden.
STOCKS OFF HIGHS
Stocks had climbed to session highs on Friday on the first reports of the White House upping its offer on coronavirus relief, but failed to gain further steam from Mr Trump's latest twist. The S&P 500 Index was up 0.8 per cent as of 2.11pm.
There is still skepticism about whether a deal can be cut and transformed into legislation before Election Day.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said earlier on Friday that there is probably not enough time before the election to bridge the "vast" differences on a new virus relief package.
"I believe that we do need another rescue package, but the proximity to the elections and the differences of opinion about what is needed are pretty vast," Mr McConnell said at an event in his home state of Kentucky.
Mr McConnell later told reporters that "even if an agreement" on stimulus is reached, his first priority is securing Senate confirmation of Mr Trump's nominee for the Supreme Court. Hearings for Amy Coney Barrett are scheduled to begin Monday with a final Senate vote as soon as the week of Oct 26.
If Mrs Pelosi and Mr Mnuchin get an agreement, Congress would then likely need two weeks or more to draft legislative text and approve it in the House and Senate. The Senate is on recess until Oct 19 and the House until mid-November, but lawmakers have been told they can be called back with 24 hours notice to vote on any stimulus deal.
If it did come to a vote, Republican lawmakers may be a major obstacle.
Mr McConnell has said that there are members of his Senate GOP majority who think the government has already provided enough stimulus. House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy has also said his caucus members are skeptical of a large package. "We'd have to see what's in it, but I think it's difficult," he said last month.
In his remarks Friday, Mr McConnell specifically highlighted the "narrowly targeted" GOP package of about a half-trillion dollars that Democrats blocked as insufficient last month.
Mrs Pelosi said she and Mr Mnuchin will be exchanging responses to questions each side had in their earlier conversations when they talk again on Friday.
"Part of it is about money, part is about policy," she said on MSNBC. "We'll see what they have to offer today." Mrs Pelosi sent a letter to House Democrats Friday morning criticising Mr Trump for not taking the pandemic seriously enough.
"The Administration does not share this priority of crushing the virus. The President does not have the capacity, leadership or plan for testing, tracing, and isolation that is needed," Mrs Pelosi wrote.
"Instead, Trump's delay, denial, distortion of reality and disdain for science has exacted a deadly and preventable human toll."
The two sides are are divided on the issues of how much money to provide state and local governments, language restricting Mr Trump's ability to divert anti-virus health care spending and the level and length of supplemental unemployment benefits. Dozens of smaller issues such as funding for election security and the Postal Service also remain.
The negotiations are proceeding against a frenzied backdrop, with the president recuperating from Covid-19 and the final stretch of the election campaign under way. Mrs Pelosi and Mr Trump publicly questioned each other's ability to perform their jobs on Thursday.