White House officials and top Democratic leaders signaled on Wednesday that they can’t agree on what they said to each other, much less forge a compromise, on a Covid-19 relief bill to help the battered U.S. economy or tens of millions of Americans facing financial hardship.
The high-stakes stalemate now appears likely to drag on for weeks, or even into September, according to lawmakers and aides in both parties.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin reached out to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) Wednesday to meet, after nearly a week of no in-person meetings. But in a statement, the two top Democrats on Capitol Hill said there’s no reason for further discussions at this point since the White House isn’t changing positions on numerous policy fights that have stalled the talks.
“The White House is not budging from their position concerning the size and scope of a legislative package,” Pelosi and Schumer said in a statement. “We have again made clear to the administration that we are willing to resume negotiations once they start to take this process seriously.”
But Mnuchin shot back at Pelosi, saying that her “statement is not an accurate reflection of our conversation. She made clear that she was unwilling to meet to continue negotiations unless we agreed in advance to her proposal, costing at least $2 trillion.”
“The Administration is willing to move forward with legislation that allows for substantial funds for schools, child care, food, vaccines, hospitals, PPP for small businesses, rental assistance, broadband, airports, state and local government assistance, and liability protection for universities, schools, and businesses,” he said in a statement. “The Democrats have no interest in negotiating.”
Among the key outstanding issues is the overall price tag for the next coronavirus relief package. The White House and Senate Republicans want to keep the cost of the package around $1 trillion, while Pelosi and Schumer initially pushed for the nearly $3.5 trillion HEROES Act that the House passed in May.
During negotiations last week, Pelosi and Schumer offered to come down $1 trillion if the White House came up $1 trillion, but Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows rejected that offer. Democrats have repeatedly pointed to that offer as a sign that it’s the White House that’s being unreasonable and blocking a bipartisan agreement.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Wednesday continued to blame Democrats for the impasse in negotiations, accusing them of “playing political games like this is some run-of-the-mill typical negotiation” and trying to add on funding for non-Covid-19 related issues.
“The speaker and the Democratic leader say nothing can move unless every one of these unrelated far-left items tags along,” McConnell said on the Senate floor. “These two individuals are letting the wish-lists of wealthy coastal elites stand between every working family in America and the additional help they deserve.”
In a sign that negotiators won’t reach an agreement anytime soon, most members of Congress have left Washington for the traditional August recess, with a 24-hour notice to return. The Senate is technically in session, but Meadows, one of the chief negotiators for the White House, is out of town and Schumer was in Long Island Wednesday for an event.
Mnuchin and Meadows are holding frequent calls with the Senate Republican Conference to update senators on the negotiations, but so far there are no indications that talks are moving forward in any meaningful way. In response to the impasse, Trump issued a series of executive actions over the weekend that would order federal agencies to take steps to reduce evictions, extend student loan payment suspensions, lengthen federal unemployment benefits at a lower rate and the defer of payroll taxes.
Democrats dismissed Trump’s moves as wholly inadequate.
Other key policy disputes include restoration of enhanced federal unemployment benefits. Democrats are pushing for an extension of the $600 weekly federal benefit from the March CARES Act, which expired in July. Republicans, however, argue that the weekly payment is a disincentive to work. In closed-door negotiations last week, the White House offered to provide a $400 weekly benefit through mid-December, but Democrats rejected that move. Pelosi and Schumer are pushing for extending the payment well into 2021.
In addition, Democrats are pushing for substantially more funding for state and local governments. But Republicans argue that most of the money from the CARES Act has yet to be spent.
“We can’t agree to a bill that has nothing for state and local governments,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.).