House Democrats overseeing pandemic relief called on Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to resume negotiations on a new aid package, saying more help was needed quickly to shore up a faltering economy.
The Democratic majority of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis used a hearing Tuesday to press Mnuchin on aid talks, which have stalled for months over the size and shape of a new relief package. A phone call last week between White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California yielded no progress.
“Today’s hearing is a call to action,” said the subcommittee’s chairman, James E. Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat. “Secretary Mnuchin, I hope you will return to the negotiating table prepared to find common cause on legislation that meets the pressing needs of American families and communities that are hurting from this crisis.”
Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters of California asked Mnuchin whether he would support Pelosi’s revised bottom line of a $2.2 trillion package — down from the $3.4 trillion House Democrats sought in the package they passed on a party-line vote in May. Meadows said over the weekend that the White House was prepared to support only $1.3 trillion.
“I do not support $2.2 trillion,” Mnuchin told Waters. But he said there were “tremendous areas of agreement” between the two parties on what the next aid package should contain and “that’s what we should be doing right away.”
The Treasury secretary said there was broad agreement on small-business loans offered through the Paycheck Protection Program, school aid, tax rebate checks and unemployment benefits, though he added, “we may be differing on amounts.”
‘More money on the table’
Mnuchin also said he and Meadows had “agreed to put more money on the table” to help state and local governments — a top priority of Democrats, who have pushed for nearly $1 trillion in such aid to prevent thousands of furloughs and layoffs they say will result without federal assistance. Mnuchin said $1 trillion would be “way too high,” while declining to disclose how much he would offer.
Waters pleaded for Mnuchin to step up his talks, asking him to place another call to Pelosi.
“If negotiations take 24 hours a day, we’ve got to get it done,” she said. “The people are hurting.”
Mnuchin, who has served as a top White House negotiator on several congressional spending deals, quickly accepted Waters’ suggestion. “Done,” he replied. “I will call her right after the hearing,” he said, referring to Pelosi.
But the 36-minute phone call late Tuesday produced no more progress than earlier talks. “Sadly, this phone call made clear that Democrats and the White House continue to have serious differences understanding the gravity of the situation that America’s working families are facing," Pelosi said in a statement issued Tuesday evening.
Mnuchin also said he favored a piecemeal approach to additional aid: “Things we can agree on, let’s move quickly.”
But Pelosi has rejected that strategy as insufficient. And she said last week that she saw no point in resuming talks unless Republicans were willing to provide at least $2.2 trillion.
Senate Republicans, meanwhile, were preparing a “skinny” version of a roughly $1 trillion package they had presented in July through a series of bills. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., who is part of Senate leadership, told reporters Tuesday the Senate may try to take up a revised measure next week.
“That’s the goal, is to come back and vote to move to that,” he said.
Republicans on the subcommittee mostly praised Mnuchin for previous rounds of aid, while questioning the need for another relief package.
“Democrats keep their states locked down and then they complain about unemployment,” said Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, who served as the panel’s ranking Republican Tuesday in the absence of House Minority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana.
Reopening the economy is more important than additional aid, Jordan suggested.
Clyburn dissented, saying the economy can’t fully reopen until the virus is contained. “Health, health of every worker and every child, is most important,” he said.
Clyburn also used the hearing to press for greater safeguards and oversight in the administration of aid programs. He released a report during the hearing documenting some abuses in the Paycheck Protection Program, which offers forgivable loans to small businesses that keep their workers on the payroll during the pandemic.
The report found that over $1 billion in loans went to companies that received multiple loans, in violation of program rules. It identified 10,856 loans given to borrowers who received multiple loans.
“The administration needs to refocus the Paycheck Protection Program, payroll support for the airline industry, and other relief programs to ensure that they are preserving jobs — not lining the pockets of wealthy executives,” Clyburn said.
But Jordan said the Paycheck Protection Program remains a success story, having provided more than 5.2 million loans so far supporting 85 percent of small businesses. Given the magnitude of the program and the focus on providing speedy relief, he said, “of course there may be a few mistakes.”