Covid talks going nowhere as deadline nears

Covid talks going nowhere as deadline nearsAugust 7, 2020

Negotiations between the White House and Democratic congressional leaders on a new coronavirus relief package were on the brink of failure Thursday night, both sides said after a fruitless three-hour meeting in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office.

The apparent deadlock in the high-level talks now shifts the focus back to President Donald Trump, who warned earlier in the day that he will issue a series of executive orders to address the economic crisis facing millions of Americans if no deal can be reached with Congress. Trump could issue these orders as early as Friday, senior administration officials said.

After their 10th face-to-face session with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) blamed the White House for failing to reach a bipartisan agreement that would allow the resumption of federal unemployment payments or provide hundreds of billions of dollars in new aid to state and local governments. Democrats are pushing a relief package costing more than $3 trillion, while the White House and Senate Republicans want to keep the price tag closer to $1 trillion.

“We have always said that the Republicans and the president do not understand the gravity of the situation,” Pelosi told reporters afterward. “And every time we meet with them, it is reinforced.”

“Right now, I would say the president only has two choices,” Schumer said. “The first is to negotiate with Democrats; he knows Republicans can’t pass a bill, you probably can’t even get a majority of Republican senators to vote for any bill, let alone the House.”

Schumer added: “The second choice is to try these executive orders, which will leave most people out, will not cover the broad expanse of what’s needed, will be litigated in court and be awkward and difficult to implement.”

But Mnuchin and Meadows said it is the Democrats, not the White House or Republicans, who were being unreasonable and refusing any efforts to compromise. The two Trump administration officials have offered to resume federal unemployment benefits at $400 per week for four months, as well as providing $200 billion to state and local governments, among other concessions offered in recent days, sources familiar with the talks said. Democrats have rejected the proposals, saying they don’t go far enough in the address the fallout from coronavirus pandemic.

“Let me characterize it this way — the compromises that Secretary Mnuchin and I put forth on behalf of the president are significantly greater than the compromises that we saw from the other side of the negotiating table,” Meadows said.

While both sides claimed they still want to meet Friday, it isn’t clear that another in-person session will actually take place.

And the failure to reach any breakthrough on Thursday makes it increasingly likely that Trump will issue as many as four executive orders. The proposed orders will call for the resumption in federal unemployment payments for a short time period by redirecting funds already approved by Congress; reinstitute a federal eviction moratorium; extend a suspension of student loan payments; and defer collection of federal payroll taxes.

The drama over the stalled negotiations came just hours after the senators left Washington, joining the already departed House as spectators in the ongoing showdown.

The Senate will technically stay in session next week but will not hold any votes unless there is a breakthrough in coronavirus negotiations. That means senators — like their House counterparts — will be back home, waiting for word from the leadership whether a deal has been reached.

“I’ve told Republican senators they’ll have 24-hour notice before a vote, but the Senate will be convening on Monday and I’ll be right here in Washington,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on the floor Thursday. “The Senate won’t adjourn for August unless and until the Democrats demonstrate they will never let an agreement materialize. A lot of Americans’ hopes, a lot of American lives are riding on the Democrats’ endless talk. I hope they’re not disappointed.”

The senators’ departure from Washington signals just how far apart Democrats and the White House remain on reaching an agreement. The coronavirus pandemic has killed more than 160,000 Americans, while tens of millions more are unemployed. The Labor Department reported Thursday that 1.19 million people filed for unemployment benefits last week in state programs, a decline from previous weeks but still a sign that the economy is showing little sign of improving.

The report was the first since a federal $600 weekly unemployment benefit allocated in March’s $2 trillion CARES Act officially expired.

Senators from both parties expressed little hope that there would be an agreement at this point, and they lashed out at the other party for causing the stalemate.

“We might not get a deal,” Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), chairman of the Appropriations Committee, told reporters. “They’re still talking. There’s optimism and then there’s pessimism. Sometimes you’re far apart, and then you get closer together. I don’t know.”

Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama — the most endangered Democrat this November — expressed deep frustration over the fact that party leaders wait until deadlines are upon them to even begin talking.

“I mean, that’s an absurd way to run this country — under threats,” Jones said.

Schumer indicated to members on a private 1 p.m. call that one of the differences between current negotiations and previous ones that led to agreements was the inclusion of Meadows, who hasn’t helped move the process quickly, according to a source on the call.

For their part, Mnuchin and Meadows have both publicly stated that they believe if a deal isn’t reached by Friday, then an agreement may not be possible

On Thursday, Trump repeated that he is weighing executive orders to address the situation, tweeting, “I’ve notified my staff to continue working on an Executive Order with respect to Payroll Tax Cut, Eviction Protections, Unemployment Extensions, and Student Loan Repayment Options.”

Democrats and the White House remain far apart in resolving key issues in the negotiations, including state and local money and boosted federal unemployment benefits. Pelosi and Schumer want to see the $600 benefit — which expired July 31 — extended into next year. But Republicans argue they provide a disincentive to work. In closed-door negotiations this week, the White House offered to extend federal unemployment benefits to $400 a week until December, only to have Democrats reject that offer.

State and local funding is another sticking point. Democrats are pushing for the nearly $1 trillion allocated in the HEROES Act, which the House passed in May. Republicans, however, point to a recent report from the Treasury Department’s Office of the Inspector General that found states on average haven’t used three-quarters of the money provided in that previous tranche of aid.

Heather Caygle contributed to this report.

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