WASHINGTON – Washington talks on vital COVID-19 rescue money are teetering on the brink of collapse after a marathon meeting in the Capitol Thursday night generated a wave of recriminations but little progress on the top issues confronting negotiators.
“There’s a handful of very big issues that we are still very far apart" on, said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who depicted a stalemate on aid to states and local governments and renewing supplemental unemployment benefits.
Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows said they would return to the White House to brief President Donald Trump to consider next steps. Democratic negotiators pleaded for talks to continue.
Both sides said the future of the negotiations is uncertain. Trump is considering executive orders to address evictions and unemployment insurance in the coming days.
“The President’s first choice is to do a deal. We’ve said that,” Mnuchin told reporters. “If we conclude tomorrow that there is not a compromise position on the major issues the president has alternatives.”
A breakdown in the talks would put at risk more than $100 billion to help reopen schools, a fresh round of $1,200 direct payments to most people, and hundreds of billions of dollars for state and local governments to help them avoid furloughing workers and cutting services as tax revenues shrivel.
Failure would also bring political consequences that may be difficult to predict, but among those most invested in reaching an agreement are Senate Republicans facing difficult reelection races this fall. Trump, whose drop in the polls has coincided with the continued spread of the virus, had been seen as keen to get a deal as well. But his top negotiators signaled they are ready to walk away.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she would consider ways to curb the overall cost of the legislation, but cast the impasse as a deeper philosophical dispute between the two sides.
“We're very far apart. It's most unfortunate,” she said.
Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer of New York urged Trump's team to return to the Capitol for another round of talks Friday, calling a bipartisan deal the “only good way to help the American people.”
Both sides have adopted a hard line in the talks, though the Trump team is more open in disclosing a handful of its proposed compromises. Republicans were late to agree to the negotiations and have become frustrated by the inflexible tactics of Pelosi and Schumer, who have been exuding confidence in a political and legislative landscape that's tilted in their favor.
The Democratic pair say the federal coronavirus aid package needs to be huge in order to meet the moment: a surge in cases and deaths, double-digit joblessness, and the threat of poverty for millions of the newly unemployed.
“We believe the patient needs a major operation while Republicans want to apply just a Band-Aid,” Schumer said. “We won’t let them just pass the Band-Aid, go home and leave America bleeding.”
Senate Republicans have been split, with roughly half of McConnell's rank and file opposed to any new rescue bill at all. Four prior coronavirus response bills totaling almost $3 trillion have passed on bipartisan votes despite intense wrangling. Trump and McConnell discussed the state of the negotiations at the White House Thursday morning.
Trump may try to use executive orders, but there's no evidence that strategy would have much impact, and Pelosi appeared unimpressed at a morning news conference.
“I don't think they know what they're talking about,” Pelosi said dismissively.
Pelosi and Schumer staked out a firm position to extend a lapsed $600-per-week bonus jobless benefit, demanded generous child care assistance and reiterated their demand for food stamps and assistance to renters and homeowners facing eviction or foreclosure.
“Don’t nickel and dime our children,” Pelosi said. “Don’t say ‘we want to give a tax break to a business lunch and not give more money for children to have food stamps.’”
Pelosi was referring to a GOP proposal to increase the deduction for business meals from 50% to 100%. The idea seems likely to die, along with Trump’s efforts to cut the Social Security payroll tax. But Schumer and Pelosi continue to push to restore a tax break for state and local taxes paid mostly by wealthier people with high incomes and valuable homes.
McConnell, R-Ky., issued a grim assessment of the situation Thursday, again complaining that Pelosi and Schumer are not negotiating in good faith.
“Day after day, they’ve stonewalled the president’s team. Day by day, they’ve tried to invent new euphemisms to create the illusion of progress,” McConnell said Thursday.
Frustration was palpable among Republican senators shuttling in and out of a GOP lunch session, some of whom say Schumer is intent on using the situation as a hammer against Republicans. Schumer is desperate to win the Senate majority just as Republicans are desperate to hold on in a terrible political year.
“As long as they calculate that they’re better off politically doing nothing, it’s going to be hard for us to move forward,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. “And that’s the calculation they’ve made, it appears.”
McConnell sent the Senate home rather than forcing impatient senators to bide their time while Democrats play hardball. The move suggests a vote won’t come until late next week, or even later.