Coronavirus relief talks stuck on scope of aid

‘The person you’re negotiating with has to want something. ... So far, so bad,’ Pelosi says

White House Chief of Staff Meadows said at a briefing Friday that congressional Democrats haven't made any counter offers to Republicans for another pandemic relief bill.   (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
White House Chief of Staff Meadows said at a briefing Friday that congressional Democrats haven't made any counter offers to Republicans for another pandemic relief bill. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted July 31, 2020 at 2:24pm

Negotiations on a coronavirus relief bill have yet to enter the policy give-and-take stage as Republicans remain focused on a short-term measure that Democrats say is worthless and delaying progress toward a much-needed broader aid package.

The federal enhanced unemployment benefit of $600 per week formally expires Friday but has effectively already lapsed since most states aren’t sending out checks this week. Negotiators have spent the past few days arguing about the amount and duration of an enhanced unemployment extension and whether they should pass a stopgap measure while continuing discussions about a broader deal.

Republicans did not offer a plan to address the expiring provision until Monday, when it was included in one part of eight coronavirus bills totaling roughly $1 trillion in aid. The initial GOP proposal was to extend the federal benefit for two months at a lower amount of $200 per week, after which they’d switch to a new formula providing for 70 percent wage replacement, factoring in the state-provided benefit.

Democrats offered their plan on unemployment months ago, passing a nearly $3.5 trillion relief package in the House in May that would have extended the $600 per week federal benefit through the end of the year.

As the Friday deadline approached, Republicans threw out several new proposals for extending the enhanced unemployment benefits.

Senate Republicans on the floor Thursday offered to extend the $600 benefit for one week or provide states a choice between $200 per week or sufficient funds to replace two-thirds of prior income through the end of the calendar year. Democrats rejected those unanimous consent requests and then the Senate adjourned until Monday, confirming a passable deal was not imminent.

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, who along with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, has been negotiating with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer on behalf of President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans, said at the White House press briefing Friday that he and Mnuchin “made no less than four different offers to Democrats” on a short-term extension of enhanced unemployment, as well as a statutory eviction moratorium that also expired this month.

Democrats rejected those offers, saying they want to reach agreement on a broader package that also addresses other needs like state and local funding and food assistance.

“Let's sit down and get this done,” Pelosi said Friday at her weekly press briefing. “Let's recognize people need $600. Let's recognize state and local need help with allaying the money they have spent to fight the virus and the revenue loss.”

The California Democrat noted that Senate Republicans don’t have the votes to pass any of the proposals they offered. She accused the GOP of feigning interest in passing a temporary extension of the $600 benefit after previously opposing that amount to save face politically.

“They want to make it sound like, ‘What we did for $600.’ They don’t have the votes for $600,” Pelosi said.

She also criticized a one-week extension as "worthless" when negotiators aren't close to a deal, saying that such a stopgap is typically only used to give lawmakers time to finalize bill text and cost estimates once they have agreement in principle.

Meadows, meanwhile, noted that the Democrats never even attempted to counter the GOP offers.

“I want to stress that the Democrats have made zero offers over the last three days,” he said.

What next?

Meadows and Mnuchin were planning to talk with Pelosi and Schumer again Friday on the phone after meeting in person the past four days. They have an in-person meeting scheduled for Saturday morning, according to an aide familiar with the talks, who declined to say if the Friday phone call occurred. But it’s unclear when they will start to get more serious and delve into the policy trade-offs needed to get to a broader deal.

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany, who spoke at the press briefing Friday with Meadows, suggested that Republicans aren’t ready to give up on a short-term package.

“We have a very specific focus right now, and it’s not this comprehensive plan, whether it be the [House-passed bill] that Democrats proposed that wasn’t serious, or the [Senate GOP package],” she said. “That narrow focus is this: that Americans are about to lose their unemployment insurance and this White House, this chief of staff, this president, this secretary of the Treasury have offered several iterations” for extending the benefits.

Pelosi and Schumer have also expressed skepticism that Republicans are prepared to start compromising on a broader package, saying they don’t understand the gravity of the economic impact of the pandemic and how big and broad a package needs to be to address those issues.

“The person you’re negotiating with has to want something,” Pelosi said. “You have to think they might want something for the American people. So far, so bad.”

Pelosi noted that Republicans have shown no interest in providing any money for state and local – Democrats want nearly $1 trillion – food assistance, election administration or the Postal Service, all of which are top Democratic priorities.

Democrats want $3.6 billion in election assistance funding and to require states to provide for mail-in voting due to the pandemic, but Trump has been especially critical of that, even saying Thursday he’d prefer to delay the election than have voters mail in their ballots because he thinks the process is susceptible to fraud.  

Pelosi questioned Trump’s motives in wanting to delay the election, saying, “Did he learn that from [Russian President Vladimir] Putin or something?”

She declined to get into specifics on how much or how little election administration money Democrats would be willing to agree to but noted, “That is a very essential priority for us.”

In a sign that leaders aren’t expecting any deal to come together quickly, the House adjourned Friday, the day it had planned to begin its August recess. However, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer urged members to keep their schedules clear for an emergency session whenever there is a negotiated package ready to pass.

“We will not start the August district work period until we pass appropriate COVID-19 relief to meet the current health and economic crisis confronting our people and our country,” the Maryland Democrat said.

Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.