WASHINGTON – Congressional Democrats and the White House again met Wednesday, hoping to hash out their differences on another coronavirus relief package and come to an agreement by the end of the week to quickly rush funds to millions of unemployed Americans stuck in financial limbo after a $600 weekly enhanced unemployment benefit expired Friday.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., met with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows to find a compromise between Democrats’ $3 trillion proposal and a $1 trillion Republican package.
The four have met nearly every day for more than a week, but movement toward a deal has been sluggish as both sides dug in their heels on some of the biggest sticking points, including the unemployment benefits and additional funds for state and local governments that have had their revenue gutted during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Wednesday, negotiations opened a new chapter as the group met with Postmaster General Louis DeJoy to discuss emergency funding needs and issues hampering the performance of the U.S. Post Office, which has seen mail delivery delays that have led to fears about mail-in ballots for the election in November.
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After the meeting concluded, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters the negotiators had a “heated discussion” with the Postmaster General, adding he and Pelosi did not find his responses to questions about ensuring the integrity of voting by mail to be satisfactory.
Both sides signaled on Wednesday that although they remained far apart on core issues, the hope was to come to a deal by the end of the week, so a bill could pass next week. Democrats and White House negotiators made a number of concessions, hoping to break the logjam and make progress on a compromise.
Mnuchin and Meadows told Republicans at a closed-door lunch Wednesday that they may halt talks if an agreement is not made by Friday, Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said. “At some point, you have to set a deadline or just continue this Kabuki dance every day, and nobody wants to do that,” he said.
Meadows, as he arrived at Pelosi’s office, said he’d “become extremely doubtful that we’ll be able to make a deal if it goes well beyond Friday” but later clarified that the end of the week was not a “drop dead date” for an agreement though “my optimism continues to diminish the closer we get to Friday and certainly falls off a cliff…exponentially after Friday.”
“I think at this point, we’re either going to get serious about negotiating and get an agreement in principle,” he said. “We’ve been spending so much time together that if you’re not making progress, there’s no sense to continue.”
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Mnuchin told reporters following Wednesday’s meeting there needed to be “real compromise” in the negotiations before a deal was struck.
“If we can reach a compromise on these big issues, I think everything else will fall into place,” he said. Meadows indicated both sides were not close to striking a deal, telling reporters they had not agreed to topline numbers on a bill and that both sides were “trillions of dollars apart.”
Democrats were not as encouraged as they had been in previous days. Pelosi noted she was “confident that we will have an agreement” but appeared less optimistic on a deal coming to fruition by Friday, telling MSNBC, “The timing of it, I can’t say because I don’t know.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of N.Y., with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., speaks to reporters following a meeting at the Capitol with White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Saturday.
Following Wednesday’s meeting, Pelosi told reporters she was “optimistic” about a deal but still unsure about the 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.
Schumer said on the Senate floor Wednesday morning there are real-life ramifications for millions as the stalemate continues.
“While we have started to generate some forward momentum, we need our partners in the White House to go much further on a number of issues,” he said.
In a speech on the Senate floor, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., accused Democrats of dragging out the negotiations.
“While Americans are struggling, the Democratic leaders have moved about 1 inch in eight days,” he said.
The White House made a number of offers to Democrats on some of their core priorities in the next package, including extending protections for renters facing evictions and enhanced unemployment benefits.
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Postmaster General Louis DeJoy arrives for a meeting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows at the Capitol in Washington on Aug. 5.
Republicans and Democrats remain far apart on many issues at the heart of the next package, one of the biggest being the $600 boost to unemployment, which Democrats want to extend until at least January and Republicans argued is too high and disincentivizes Americans from going back to work. Republicans offered to slash the benefit to $200. The bonus bolsters state benefits that average nationally about $370 a week.
The benefits have been a financial lifeline for millions, and the sudden halt left families across the nation fearful over making ends meet as many workplaces struggle to reopen.
A survey by the Census Bureau in July found 24 million Americans said they had no or little confidence in their ability to pay their rent in August. More than a quarter, or 26.5%, of Americans missed rent or their mortgage payment for July.
Black and Hispanic Americans have faced even steeper losses. About 46% of Black and Hispanic renters said they would probably not be able to pay rent in August.
Republicans and Democrats also have differences on funds for state and local governments and the post office, areas important to Democrats, and liability insurance for businesses, which Republicans said is a requirement in the next bill.
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Lawmakers face pressure from their states’ governors to pass funding for state and local governments.
At a meeting of the National Governors Association on Wednesday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the incoming chairman of the bipartisan group, said a “top priority” of the group was for $500 billion of unrestricted state and local funding to be included in the next COVID-19 relief bill.
“All major economists agree that without providing financial assistance for state and local governments, the economy will not rebound as quickly as it would otherwise,” he said.
President Donald Trump on Wednesday reiterated his threat to use executive action to address some of the economic hardship caused by the virus if a deal isn’t reached, but also continued to gloss over questions about his authority to act unilaterally. Trump said he is considering a short-term suspension of the payroll tax, an idea he has floated for months but that has met with bipartisan resistance, as well as an order to block evictions.
“My administration is exploring executive actions to provide protections against eviction — eviction is a big problem, very unfair to a lot of people,” Trump told reporters at the White House on Wednesday.
Pelosi acknowledged in an MSNBC interview Wednesday that Trump might have the power to extend the eviction moratorium for some homes, but without the support of Congress to appropriate money, “it’s helpful, but it’s not the whole thing.”
Contributing: John Fritze
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus relief package: Both sides hope for deal by end of week