Senate GOP leaders and the White House have shown no clear plan to break a deadlock with Democrats over a new coronavirus relief package, said Republican senators and Trump administration officials.
A week of closed-door talks between Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on one side and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows on the other have yielded little progress. At the same time, a $600-per-week federal unemployment benefit has lapsed, as has a federal eviction moratorium, threatening the financial outlook of millions of Americans.
Faced with this deadlock, President Donald Trump said on Monday he is considering issuing executive orders extending the eviction moratorium or possibly delaying collection of the federal payroll tax, although it’s not clear what authority he has to do so. And when Trump could issue these presidential orders is also unclear.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has also threatened to force votes this week on GOP proposals addressing unemployment insurance. But following a GOP leadership meeting on Monday night, Republicans made no decision to move forward with that vote, or any other Senate GOP proposal.
“I think we’ll see as the discussions go on this week where the consensus forms, and at this point there haven’t been any decisions made on what we will vote on,” said Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) after the meeting.
Pelosi and Schumer have also criticized McConnell for staying out of the high-level talks being held in Pelosi’s office, yet the Kentucky Republican — burned more than once by Trump’s change of direction during negotiations — has let White House officials take the lead in the discussions.
Pelosi and Schumer want to spend trillions of dollars more than McConnell, who initially offered a $1 trillion package. Mnuchin and Meadows have floated a “skinny” plan to the two Democratic leaders that would extend some federal unemployment assistance, but Pelosi and Schumer argued they don’t want to do a “piecemeal” negotiation.
When asked about whether the package would have to go over $1 trillion, Meadows responded that both sides are so far apart that that’s “not even a valid question.”
No deal is imminent, and the negotiations might drag into mid-August, Democrats warned.
Pelosi and Schumer emerged from a two hour meeting with Mnuchin and Meadows Monday afternoon saying talks were moving along, albeit slowly, which is similar to previous public pronouncements. The parties discussed top line numbers, particularly funding to reopen schools, but remained far apart on unemployment insurance and another huge issue, funding for state and local governments. Democrats want another $1 trillion in aid for this sector, but the White House and Republican leaders note that tens of billions of dollars from the Cares Act passed in March is still unspent.
“We are really getting an understanding of each side’s position,” Schumer said. “And we’re making some progress on certain issues moving closer together. There are a lot of issues that are still outstanding. But I think there is a desire to get something done as soon as we can. And so we’re continuing to work.”
Pelosi told fellow House Democrats on a conference call later Monday that there may be no resolution of the crisis until next week, as neither side has shifted on unemployment insurance.
“It is my hope we could do it this week…but probably not until next week,” Pelosi told Democrats on the call.
Mnuchin also acknowledged that negotiators were getting “a little bit” closer to a bigger package.
White House and Republican leaders on the Hill are desperately searching for some way to change the political dynamic surrounding the negotiations. With the pandemic spiking in many states, Trump trailing Democratic challenger Joe Biden in the polls, and Democrats in reach of taking back control of the Senate, Republicans say they need to shift the debate somehow.
White House officials have also floated for days that Trump could take executive action to address some of the economic damage from the coronavirus pandemic. White House officials and some Trump allies have called for Trump to suspend payment of the federal payroll tax, although it’s unclear if the president has the authority to do that. Trump pushed for a payroll tax cut as part of the Senate GOP’s relief package, but the idea was rejected by Republican leaders.
Among the biggest sticking points is the $600 federal unemployment benefit, which Democrats want to see extended into next year. Meadows floated several options for a longer extension of the $600 payment as part of a so-called skinny plan last week, only to have Pelosi and Schumer say no. Senate Republicans have also suggested alternatives to the $600 weekly boost.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Monday he’d introduce a proposal that would provide 100 percent wage replacement, which some Republicans expressed openness too.
“I would interpret that as not being a disincentive to work,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa.) “ I don’t like it …but for this period of time, till now to the end of the year I’d be okay.”
McConnell chastised Pelosi and Schumer on the Senate floor Monday afternoon for their approach to negotiations, slamming them again for pushing the House’s nearly $3.5 trillion Heroes Act, which passed in May. McConnell and other Senate Republicans have dismissed that legislation as a Democratic “wish list” that didn’t actually provide a basis for bipartisan, bicameral talks.
“The speaker of the House and the Democratic leader are continuing to say our way or the highway,” McConnell said. “[Schumer’s] digging in on a House messaging bill written with no input from his own members, that even House Democrats themselves called absurd. These are not the tactics that would build a bipartisan result.
Senate Republicans and committee aides complain as well that Schumer is blocking any discussions between rank-and-file senators at the committee level. And a “staff meeting” on Sunday between the two sides only included aides to Meadows and Mnuchin, not any Senate Republican staffers.
“Leader Schumer clearly does not want his caucus negotiating with Republicans like they did with the Cares Act,” said a Senate GOP aide. “By shutting out his own members, he’s stifling the bipartisanship that made the Cares process so successful. He’s allowing election-year politics to dominate and it’s hurting any progress on a deal.”
But Democrats argue that without an established negotiating framework, talks between members are pointless. And they say negotiations are different this time around given that the House already passed the Heroes Act in May, which Democrats are using as their starting point.
“Democrats are eager to begin committee-level talks, but the Senate Republicans are still in such disarray so it’s unclear what their position is,” said a Senate Democratic leadership aide. “Furthermore, they haven’t been authorized to negotiate by the White House. Once a framework is agreed to by the White House and Democrats, the committees in both the House and Senate will work on the details. “
The Senate is scheduled to leave for August recess at the end of the week, but that could be delayed if neither side is able to reach some type of deal.
Heather Caygle contributed to this report.
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