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Last-ditch virus aid talks collapse

WASHINGTON (AP) — A last-ditch effort by Democrats to revive Capitol Hill talks on vital COVID-19 rescue money collapsed in disappointment Friday, making it increasingly likely that Washington gridlock will mean more hardship for millions of people who are losing enhanced jobless benefits and further damage for an economy pummeled by the still-raging coronavirus.

“It was a disappointing meeting,” declared top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer, saying the White House had rejected an offer by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to curb Democratic demands by about $1 trillion. He urged the White House to “negotiate with Democrats and meet us in the middle. Don’t say it’s your way or no way.”

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said, “Unfortunately we did not make any progress today.” Republicans said Pelosi was relying on budget maneuvers to curb costs and contended she has overplayed her hand.

Often an impasse in Washington is of little consequence for the public — not so this time. It means longer and perhaps permanent expiration of a $600 per-week bonus pandemic jobless benefit that’s kept millions of people from falling into poverty. It denies more than $100 billion to help schools reopen this fall. It blocks additional funding for virus testing as cases are surging this summer. And it denies billions of dollars to state and local governments considering furloughs as their revenue craters.

Ahead is uncertainty. Both the House and Senate have left Washington, with members sent home on instructions to be ready to return for a vote on an agreement. With no deal in sight, their absence raises the possibility of a prolonged stalemate that stretches well into August and even September.

President Donald Trump for now appears poised to go it alone, despite the considerable limits of that approach. Following through on earlier threats, Mnuchin said Trump will move forward with executive orders on home evictions and on student loan debt, and to permit states to repurpose COVID relief funding into their unemployment insurance programs. But a potential executive order to defer collection of Social Security payroll taxes has been shelved.

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said, “This is not a perfect answer — we’ll be the first ones to say that — but it is all that we can do, and all the president can do within the confines of his executive power.”

Friday’s session followed a combative meeting on Thursday evening that for the first time cast real doubt on the ability of the Trump administration and Democrats on Capitol Hill to come together on a fifth COVID-19 response bill. Pelosi summoned Mnuchin and Meadows in hopes of breathing life into the negotiations, which have been characterized by frustration and intransigence on both sides — particularly on top issues such as extending the bonus pandemic jobless benefit that expired last week.

Pelosi declared the talks all but dead until Meadows and Mnuchin give ground.

“I’ve told them ‘come back when you are ready to give us a higher number,'” she said.

The breakdown in the negotiations is particularly distressing for schools, which have been counting on billions of dollars from Washington to help with the costs of reopening. But other priorities are also languishing, including a fresh round of $1,200 direct payments to most people, a cash infusion for the struggling Postal Service and money to help states hold elections in November.

In a news conference on Friday Pelosi said she offered a major concession to Republicans.

“We’ll go down $1 trillion, you go up $1 trillion,” Pelosi said. The figures are approximate, but a Pelosi spokesman said the speaker is in general terms seeking a “top line” of perhaps $2.4 trillion since the House-passed HEROES Act is scored at $3.45 trillion. Republicans say their starting offer was about $1 trillion but have offered some concessions on jobless benefits and aid to states, among others, that have brought the White House offer higher.

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