WASHINGTON – Negotiations over another coronavirus relief package tumbled into a state of uncertainty Thursday evening with congressional leaders and lead White House negotiators painting a grim picture on a path forward, even as millions of anxious Americans wait for vital financial relief.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., met for a 10th time Thursday evening with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows to hash out their differences over the next round of emergency funds. After three hours, both sides reported progress but also described a bleak portrait of the discussions that may stunt future meetings, even as pressure continues to mount for action to keep renters from being evicted and to help unemployed workers make ends meet.
Both sides have pushed for a compromise by the end of the week, with White House negotiators and the president repeatedly threatening executive action if a deal isn't met.
"I would say we’re closer on a lot of issues. We’re still very far apart on some very significant issues," Mnuchin said following the three-hour-long meeting, adding that if a deal couldn’t be reached the White House is still willing to do a short-term measure on unemployment and a host of pressing issues that have left American families in limbo. Both sides were "very far apart" on a deal to send funding to state and local governments, he said.
Meadows appeared less optimistic, airing frustrations after the tenth meeting between the group. He said he and Mnuchin would brief the president Thursday evening on the talks.
“We’re going to evaluate tonight. We’re going to brief the president,” he said, adding that Pelosi and Schumer were also discussing what comes next and if it’s “worth coming back.” Meadows added that the White House was “willing to stay engaged.”
Meadows said President Donald Trump called into the meeting three times.
Democrats characterized the meeting as both constructive and disappointing, noting that progress was made on some issues but both sides remained very far apart.
Pelosi said while there was progress, the meeting was “unfortunate” and said Meadows, at one point, slammed his hands on the table – something she compared to the president’s conduct in meetings.
“I saw something familiar in the room. You know, I spent time in the White House when the president slammed that table and walked out,” she said. “Well, that's really what Mr. Meadows did. Slam the table and walk out, and you're slamming the table on our children and their schools. We need to have substantial help for our schools.”
Meadows said he did not know what Pelosi was referring to, and told reporters he "didn't walk out of any meeting all day."
She said while there was a back-and-forth, the talks should not be about what party gets more of its policy objectives in the final product. “It's not about who gets more if what in the halls of Congress, it's about what it translates into the lives that the American people.”
Schumer urged Mnuchin and Meadows to continue talks, noting both touted the president was still seriously examining an executive order to curtail Congress due to the sluggish pace of negotiations. He said both Mnuchin and Meadows admitted the order was “not a good choice” but may be needed.
“Their stance was disappointing,” the New York Democrat said. “We asked them, would you meet us in the middle, and they said no, it has to be mostly in our direction. They were unwilling to meet in the middle, they said it mostly has to be their way and they admitted that, and that's what makes this so disappointing.”
"People will become homeless because Republicans are nickeling and diming," Pelosi said Thursday at a news conference.
The meeting followed senators leaving town for the weekend, leaving no chance for a deal to be approved before next week. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., vowed to keep the Senate in session next week – despite a planned recess – as he blasted Democrats for playing “political theater” and “stalling” on negotiations.
He dismissed the Democrats’ proposal as an “absurd, far-left wish list” that ignores more moderate measures some of their own lawmakers want to include.
McConnell said he would give senators 24-hour notice before any legislation moved to the floor. The notice would allow senators time to return to Washington if they went back to their home states, though some plan to stay in Washington until a deal is brokered.
Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., who chairs the chamber's powerful Appropriations Committee, expressed cynicism over the status of the talks, admitting "we might not get a deal."
"There's a lot of pessimism here," he said.
The Democratic-led House passed the HEROES Act, a roughly $3.4 trillion bill that would provide a second round of direct payments to millions of Americans, nearly $1 trillion to revenue-strapped states and local governments and billions for housing and food assistance.
The Republican-controlled Senate introduced its counterproposal, the HEALS Act, a $1.1 trillion package that includes direct payments but no federal aid for housing, food or state and local governments. It has yet to pass the chamber.
Republicans proposed a short-term extension of the $600 weekly unemployment boost that expired July 31 until a broader compromise can be reached. Democrats categorically rejected the plan, arguing the time it would take to get funds to families would not provide the same meaningful help as a larger deal.
“We’re not having a short-term extension,” Pelosi said Thursday.
At a news conference, Pelosi and Schumer said they were opposed to a compromise that would bring a boost to unemployment benefits lower than $600 a week.
Democrats said they would be unwilling to break a relief bill into smaller parts.
"If you piecemeal this or if you start saying we're going to break this out and only agree to this issue or that issue, it becomes more difficult,” Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, said Thursday at a news conference. “I think that the speaker's position of saying that nothing can be agreed to until everything has been agreed to – I think that's the correct path."
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The Paycheck Protection Program to help small businesses stay open during the pandemic is set to expire Saturday. Partisan differences temporarily scuttled a plan by Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Susan Collins of Maine to bring a bill to the Senate floor this week to renew the PPP.
"As long as they've calculated that they think they can benefit politically by the unemployed not getting benefits, by small-business funding running out, by schools not getting the money they need to reopen … it's going to be hard for us to move forward,” Rubio said on Capitol Hill Thursday. “And that's the calculation they've made, it appears."
While negotiations continue behind closed doors, outside groups pressured lawmakers on the inclusion of restaurant aid and election funding.
A group of small-restaurant owners, who have been particularly hard hit by the economic fallout of the pandemic, said the bill being negotiated won’t do much to help their situation.
A survey released Thursday by the Independent Restaurant Coalition found that most say there’s a 1-in-3 chance their business won’t survive beyond October.
“If Congress passes another aid package without direct help for our industry, you’re looking at over 500,000 small business and 16 million workers that are not only in jeopardy but at the precipice and about to be pushed over,” said Andrew Zimmern, founding member of the Independent Restaurant Coalition and partner in Lucky Cricket and several other restaurants in Minneapolis.
They’re pushing for passage of the Restaurants Act, bipartisan legislation that would create a $120 billion grant program for nonchain restaurants needing help with rent, payroll, utilities, food and supplies. The fund would be different from the Paycheck Protection Program created by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act because it wouldn’t require more than half be spent on payroll and wouldn't be a a loan program.
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Several liberal groups – Stand Up America, Color of Change, Indivisible, Let America Vote/End Citizens United Action Fund and Public Citizen – blasted Republicans in a statement released Thursday calling for at least $3.6 billion in federal funding for elections and a deadline extension for the census.
“Anything less would not only hurt our elections this year but damage our democracy for years to come,” the groups said.
Trump again signaled he might use executive action to address the economic impact of the pandemic, though he has glossed over questions about his authority to do so.
“Upon departing the Oval Office for Ohio, 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 option,” he tweeted Thursday.
Upon departing the Oval Office for Ohio, 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.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 6, 2020
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus relief: No deal in Congress on unemployment, checks