By Siobhan Hughes 

WASHINGTON -- As a Republican congressman, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows was a chief antagonist to his own party's leaders, pushing one Republican House speaker from office and roiling the GOP's efforts to devise an alternative to Obamacare.

Now, Mr. Meadows is bringing his personal style to negotiations on a new coronavirus-aid package, giving Democratic leaders a firsthand view of the dig-in-your-heels approach he sometimes employed in the House. His addition to the bargaining team, joining Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, has changed the contours of the trillion-dollar-plus negotiations, both sides say.

"Anybody who's covered Congress long enough knows that I typically will not concede as readily as some might," Mr. Meadows told reporters this week. He said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's negotiation strategy -- which he described as "wear you down until finally you say 'I've had enough" -- wouldn't work on him.

Mr. Meadows, who came to Congress on the heels of the tea party wave and served as chairman of the hard-line House Freedom Caucus, has long been skeptical of government spending and deficits.

"He's Dr. No," said Sen. Chris Coons (D., Del.), who along with other Democrats has been kept abreast of the discussions through briefings by his party's leader.

Mr. Meadows, joined by Mr. Mnuchin, has met daily with Mrs. Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) to hash out differences between a Senate Republican plan totaling $1 trillion and a House Democratic measure that cleared the House in May totaling $3.5 trillion. Late in the week, Democrats proposed a package somewhere around the $2 trillion to $2.5 trillion range, but Republicans rejected it, and talks Friday showed no signs of progress.

Many Republicans are supportive of Mr. Meadows's approach, which they say increases the chances that any new assistance program will reflect GOP priorities, in contrast to an earlier negotiation, in which Republicans felt that Mr. Mnuchin had given too much away.

"Maybe he can keep an eye on the secretary and make sure he doesn't make too many concessions to Pelosi," said Sen. John Cornyn (R., Texas).

Mrs. Pelosi, who has maintained a good working relationship with Mr. Mnuchin even as she feuded with President Trump, said Mr. Meadows has mimicked Mr. Trump's tactics. "I've been in the White House when the president has slammed the table and walked out. Well, that's really what Mr. Meadows did," she said of Thursday's talks. "His positions are quite hardened and non-compromising" compared with Mr. Mnuchin, said Mr. Schumer.

Mr. Meadows said the notion that he slammed a table was inaccurate, and he has accused Mrs. Pelosi and Mr. Schumer of talking about him behind his back. When Mrs. Pelosi and Mr. Schumer go before the cameras to complain that White House negotiators don't understand the severity of the crisis, Mr. Meadows marches to the cameras to say that Democrats are unreasonable negotiators who aren't interested in compromise.

The White House has offered concessions from the initial Republican opening bid, such as agreeing to a $400-a-week federal jobless supplement, up from the Senate GOP proposal for an interim $200-a-week supplement before shifting to a program in which the federal assistance, when combined with state aid, would make up 70% of lost wages. Democrats haven't budged on their demand for a $600 weekly federal supplement, or their demand for large-scale aid to states and localities, although they have agreed to shorten the duration of such assistance to lower the cost of their plan.

Mr. Mnuchin, who helped negotiate a $2.2 trillion package that was enacted into law in March with bipartisan support, has emphasized possible areas of compromise. Mr. Meadows has highlighted the disagreements.

"Where is the compromise?" Mr. Meadows said on Friday as he announced that Mr. Trump would circumvent Congress by using his executive powers to take some actions on his own, such as by renewing a federal unemployment supplement and extending an eviction moratorium. "This is not a perfect answer; we'll be the first ones to say that. But it is all that we can do."

Mr. Meadows has a record of building conservative power centers, first in Congress and now in the White House, leveraging his networking skills and knowledge of procedural minutiae.

In 2015, Mr. Meadows was a chief architect of a little-used procedural move to force a divisive vote on ousting House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) from office, a prospect that within months prompted Mr. Boehner to announce his resignation. Now, Mr. Meadows is the chief architect of Mr. Trump's strategy of using executive orders to renew a jobless supplement, provide student-loan help, and ban evictions, overseeing the drafting of executive orders that the president has said he'll sign if the talks don't yield enough progress, people familiar with the matter said.

A spokesman for Mr. Meadows didn't respond to a request for comment.

Mr. Meadows also revamped the White House's legislative affairs office, following the departure of high-profile staffers including director Eric Ueland, who played a major role in the March coronavirus negotiations. He promoted Cassidy Hutchinson, who two years ago was a White House intern, to legislative affairs coordinator in the chief of staff's office, giving Mr. Meadows a direct line to the legislative affairs team. Ms. Hutchinson has accompanied Mr. Meadows to his meetings in Mrs. Pelosi's office, congressional aides say, while Amy Swonger, the acting legislative affairs director, hasn't participated in the meetings, people familiar with the matter said.

Democrats say Mr. Meadows is prioritizing ideology over needed aid, and highlighted that Republicans remain split in what they want from the talks.

"Basically what's happening is Mr. Meadows is from the tea party -- you have 20 Republicans in the Senate greatly influenced by him and they don't want to spend the necessary dollars to help get America out of this mess," Mr. Schumer said.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), who has stayed out of the daily talks, has previously estimated that at least 20 of his colleagues may not support any new stimulus package, amid concerns over mounting federal budget deficits.

Mr. Meadows "wants to make sure like I do we take care of the people who have lost their jobs," said Sen. Rick Scott (R., Fla.). "But you can't bankrupt the country."

Andrew Restuccia, Natalie Andrews and Kristina Peterson contributed to this article.

Write to Siobhan Hughes at


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

August 07, 2020 17:15 ET (21:15 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.