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Trump’s call for ‘higher numbers’ in stimulus fight undercuts Republican strategy

Trump said on Wednesday, “Go for the much higher numbers, Republicans,” in a tweet referencing coronavirus stimulus payments — a message that stands to undercut the strategy Hill Republicans have pursued of opposing Democratic efforts to negotiate a higher top-line number than GOP lawmakers have so far put forward.

The President’s message privately frustrated Republicans, who wanted the focus to be on House Democratic infighting over their party’s response to the pandemic and on the refusal of Democratic leadership to support a narrower, pared-back relief effort. Instead, the tweet immediately put a spotlight on Republicans and prompted questions over whether they would join Trump’s call for a larger price tag.

Top Republicans have so far not embraced the call from the President. Some GOP lawmakers pushed back on Trump’s suggestion to go for “higher numbers” on Wednesday, while others dodged questions about whether they would support such a move.

Senate Majority Whip John Thune of South Dakota, reacting to Trump’s tweet urging the GOP to get behind more stimulus money, warned that Republican support could deteriorate in the face of a more expensive proposal.

Asked if Republicans would support higher numbers, Thune responded, “I’m not sure what higher number means … but I know sort of what the threshold is for what we can (get) Republican votes for in the Senate, and if the numbers are too high anything that got passed in the Senate would be passed mostly with Democrat votes and a handful of Republicans. It’s got to have a realistic range if we want to maximize, optimize, the number of Republican senators that will vote for it.”

At the end of July, Senate Republicans unveiled a roughly $1 trillion stimulus proposal, which Democrats criticized as inadequate as they remained unified around a more costly $3 trillion proposal of their own.

Since then, Democrats have offered to drop their top-line demand to $2.2 trillion, but the White House and Senate Republicans have rejected that. Instead, Senate Republicans attempted unsuccessfully to pass a scaled-back, roughly $500 billion proposal last week, a measure that Democrats blocked.

Asked what the highest number is that Republicans would support, Thune said on Wednesday, “I mean initially it was a trillion dollars, and we had a lot of resistance to that, so I think our members are in that range, probably,” adding, “but as you go upwards from there you start losing Republican support pretty quickly.”

House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy of California dodged when pressed by reporters about Trump’s tweet. When asked if Republicans would support a higher number than they have offered so far, he deflected the question by instead accusing Democrats of delays. “I don’t think the Democrats actually want one. I think the speaker delays with this,” he said and then walked into the House chamber.

House GOP Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney of Wyoming said on Wednesday, “I would be hesitant to make a commitment about a level that is that high,” adding, “I’m really concerned about funds that have been appropriated and haven’t been spent yet. I think the real solution to this is we’ve got to get the economy going again.”

A House aide with knowledge of the talks said there was no major progress in a phone call Wednesday between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and that Pelosi continued to press for the administration to come up to the Democrats’ topline number of around $2 trillion.

A spokesman for Pelosi said the conversation also included discussions on a continuing resolution, which would provide a stop-gap solution as a government funding deadline approaches, but that so far there has been no resolution on that front either.

Earlier on Wednesday, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican, told reporters that they don’t have a deal yet on the time frame of the continuing resolution. The GOP wants it to go to mid-December, but some Democrats are pushing for into the new year when a new Congress and potentially a new administration comes to power.

In a statement, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and Pelosi seized on Trump’s tweet Wednesday.

“We are encouraged that after months of the Senate Republicans insisting on shortchanging the massive needs of the American people, President Trump is now calling on Republicans to ‘go for the much higher numbers’ in the next coronavirus relief package,” the two top Democrats in Congress said.

“We look forward to hearing from the President’s negotiators that they will finally meet us halfway with a bill that is equal to the massive health and economic crises gripping our nation,” they said.

Asked to clarify exactly what the President was calling for in his tweet, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said during a briefing on Wednesday, “What the President was referring to was the $500 billion bill that passed the Senate. … It didn’t include direct payments. So he wants more than the $500 billion, and he is very keen to see these direct stimulus payments and we hope that Nancy Pelosi will work with us in good faith.”

While some Republican senators have suggested they might be able to live with a proposal that cost more than their roughly $500 billion skinny plan last week, moving to a number that would satisfy Democrats would split the conference and risk McConnell losing more than half of his members.

Sen. Mike Braun, a conservative Republican from Indiana, told CNN he didn’t see much appetite to go much higher than where members were last week saying anything over $1.5 trillion would “be a little bit of an acrobatic feat.”

When asked about Trump’s tweet urging Republicans to back more stimulus money, Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, a member of the Republican Senate leadership team, said he thinks “the number is going to be higher than our trillion dollars.”

“I think there’s a deal to be had here,” Blunt said. “My concern is that the window probably closed at the end of this month and we need to get busy finding out what we can all agree on. And I think the number is going to be higher than our trillion dollars.”

GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said on Wednesday to “count me in the camp of trying to get something done” following the President’s tweet, but added that he believes “we can do this thing well below $2 trillion and meet the needs.”

Meanwhile, some Democrats are continuing to express frustration with the lack of progress in negotiations.

“I want everyone to come back to the negotiating table first and foremost,” said Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a Democrat from Virginia facing reelection in a district Donald Trump won in 2016.

Rep. Stephanie Murphy, a Democrat from Florida who chairs the Blue Dog Caucus, said, “I am concerned that we are not making progress toward getting help to the American people right now, and that lies at the feet of leadership in both chambers.”

This story has been updated with additional developments Wednesday.

CNN’s Lauren Fox, Ali Zaslav, Phil Mattingly and Kristin Wilson contributed to this report.

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