Coronavirus Relief Bill Talks: Over the Cliff

Coronavirus Relief Bill Talks: Over the Cliff

Reuters/Carlos Barria

Negotiations on another coronavirus relief package continue to involve more finger-pointing than progress, with White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Friday each accusing the other side of being unwilling to strike a deal.

With an enhanced federal unemployment benefit of $600 a week set to formally expire on Friday, and with the last of those payments having already gone out, President Trump and Republicans have been pressing for a stopgap extension of the program and a moratorium on evictions. Meadows told reporters Friday that Democrats had rejected multiple proposals by the administration to extend the unemployment payments.

“At the president’s direction, we have made no less than four different offers” to continue the emergency programs, Meadows said at a White House briefing. “They’ve not even been countered with a proposal. So the Democrats are certainly willing today to allow some of the American citizens who are struggling the most under this pandemic to go unprotected.”

Meadows didn’t detail the offers, but Politico reports that he made a proposal that many Republicans might have a hard time swallowing: “to extend enhanced unemployment at $600 per week for four months as a stand-alone bill. … It’s an extension of current law -- something the GOP has railed against.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer reportedly countered by proposing to extend the $600 payments through the first quarter of 2021.

The Washington Post reports that the White House is also willing to agree to a deal that does not include the liability protections for businesses, hospitals and schools. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has insisted those protections are his “red line” in talks. “That’s a question for Mitch McConnell ... that’s his priority,” White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Friday, when asked if the administration would demand a liability shield. “This president is very keenly focused on unemployment insurance.”

Democrats reject piecemeal approach: At her weekly press conference, Pelosi said that the White House had offered a one-week extension of the unemployment insurance boost and reiterated her position that such a deal would only make sense if the parties were making progress toward a broader agreement and that Republicans don’t have the votes to pass any of their proposals.

“What is a one week extension good for?  The one week extension is good if you have a bill, and you’re working it out, the details, the writing of it,” Pelosi told reporters late Thursday after meeting with Meadows and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. “It’s worthless unless you are using it for a purpose.”

Republicans initially proposed reducing the federal unemployment payment, which comes in addition to regular state benefits, to $200 a week and enacting a system that would replace about 70% of a worker’s previous wages in total.

The speaker blamed Republicans for waiting to formulate a counterproposal to the $3 trillion plan Democrats passed in May, which would extend the $600 payments through January, among other things. “The Republicans said they wanted to take a pause. Well, the virus didn’t. Since then over 65,000 Americans have died,” she said. “Clearly they, and perhaps the White House, do not understand the gravity of the situation.”

Aid to state and local governments also a stumbling block: The two sides reportedly also remain far apart on a number of other issues, including additional aid to state and local governments. Democrats reportedly are seeking more than $900 billion in such funding, much more than the White House and Senate Republicans want.

President Trump later tweeted that Pelosi and Schumer have "no interest" in reaching a deal and accused them of blocking “desperately needed unemployment payments. “Pelosi & Schumer have no interest in making a deal that is good for our Country and our People,” Trump tweeted. “All they want is a trillion dollars, and much more, for their Radical Left Governed States, most of which are doing very badly. It is called a BAILOUT for many years of bad Dem Mgmt!”

The bottom line: Sahil Kapur of NBC News noted that the barbs flying back and forth at dueling press briefings are an indication of just how far apart the parties remain: “Abundantly clear from that Pelosi presser that talks with Meadows/Mnuchin are going nowhere fast. As anyone who's covered the Hill knows: attacks dial down when progress is privately occurring and escalate when it's not.”

What’s next: Talks are reportedly set to continue in person on Saturday morning. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said Friday that the House would remain in session until a deal is reached, but he also said members would be given 24 hours’ notice to return to vote on a package once a relief package is ready.