By Patricia Zengerle and Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Top congressional Democrats and White House officials appeared to harden their stances on new coronavirus relief legislation on Wednesday, as negotiations headed toward an end-of-week deadline with no sign of an agreement.
U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters after nearly two hours of talks that Democrats were determined to reach agreement on a legislative package but only if it met the needs of an American public reeling from months of restrictions aimed at stopping the spread of infections.
Another key negotiator, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, told CNN that President Donald Trump stood ready to take unilateral action on pressing issues such as unemployment benefits and protection from evictions if the talks cannot produce agreement.
"If Congress can't get it done, the president of the United States will," he told CNN.
The two sides remained trillions of dollars apart in their negotiating positions after more than a week of discussions between Pelosi, Meadows, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer.
Senate Republicans have been told that negotiators have until Friday to reach agreement. "If there's not a deal by Friday, there won't be a deal," Republican Senator Roy Blunt told reporters.
But Mnuchin played down the idea of Friday as a make-or-break point.
"I don't want to describe this as an end-of-week deadline. What I want to say is that we set an objective, to see if we can deal with the major issues by Friday," he told reporters.
Pelosi also suggested flexibility on timing. "I feel optimistic that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, but how long that tunnel is remains to be seen," she said.
Negotiators have already blown past one deadline: last Friday, when enhanced unemployment payments of $600 a week expired for the tens of millions of Americans who have lost their jobs in the pandemic.
FALLING INTO PLACE
Trump said he was considering unilateral action to stimulate the economy by allowing taxpayers to defer payroll tax payments - a proposal that has gained no traction among lawmakers of either party.
"I have the right to suspend it, and I may do it myself," he said in an interview with Fox News. "I have the absolute right to suspend the payroll."
Before Trump acts, Mnuchin said negotiators would aim for compromise on some big issues, adding that there is already a series of topics on which the sides have reached or neared agreement.
"If we can reach a compromise on these big issues, I think everything else will fall into place. If we can't reach an agreement on these big issues, then I don't see us coming to an overall deal. And then we'll have to look at the president taking actions," Mnuchin told reporters.
Mnuchin has warned that the Trump administration would not accept "anything close" to the $3.4 trillion in new aid sought by Democrats. But he offered to extend through the end of the year an expired moratorium on evictions of people unable to pay their rent.
Mitch McConnell, the Senate's top Republican, who has not joined the negotiations, did not draw as hard a line as Mnuchin or some fellow Republican Senators.
"We'll certainly be in next week. We'll see what happens after that," McConnell said. Even if the White House and Democratic negotiations agree on a deal, it will take time to draw up legislative language and summon members for a vote.
Some of McConnell's Republicans last week rebelled against his $1 trillion proposal, which would have significantly reduced the enhanced jobless benefit.
In May, the Democratic-controlled House passed a $3 trillion aid bill that included around $1 trillion to help state and local governments that have revenue shortfalls because of the huge slowdown in economic activity related to the pandemic.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, speaking on behalf of all U.S. governors, urged Congress to include $500 billion in unrestricted state funding.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle, Susan Cornwell and Richard Cowan in Washington; Writing by David Morgan; Editing by Scott Malone, Jonathan Oatis and Sonya Hepinstall)