White House, Democrats meet on coronavirus relief plan after days of acrimony

“Compromise has to have a dollar sign in front of it,” Meadows said.

President Trump signaled earlier Thursday that absent a deal he will take executive actions on several fronts, including an eviction moratorium and unemployment assistance, as early as Friday.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), addressing reporters as he walked into the meeting in Pelosi’s office in the Capitol, criticized the White House for setting a deadline and threatening to act alone.

“Meadows wants to have a deadline, or the president, I guess they can. But it wouldn’t be good for the country,” Schumer said. Asked about the prospect for executive orders, Schumer replied: “Everyone would agree that it’s much better to come to a deal.”

Even before the meeting with Pelosi, Schumer, Meadows and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin got under way, tempers were flaring on Capitol Hill. Pelosi alleged in a television interview that Republicans don’t give “a damn” about those in need, while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) accused Democrats of lying about GOP proposals.

As the process drags on, more than 30 million Americans are about to endure their second week without enhanced unemployment benefits. An eviction moratorium also expired last week, and the small business Paycheck Protection Program is set to expire on Saturday. Meanwhile, relief for certain student loan borrowers is set to expire Sept. 30.

“We’re at an impasse right now,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) told reporters before the White House met with Democrats.

Democrats are pushing for a large aid package but Meadows and Mnuchin favor a smaller deal. Meadows suggested ahead of the meeting that the White House has shown willingness to move higher than their initial $1 trillion starting point, while accusing Democrats of refusing to budge from their $3.4 trillion opening offer.

McConnell said he would be keeping the Senate in session “unless and until the Democrats demonstrate they will never let an agreement materialize.” However, multiple Republican senators said they were heading to their home states and would return if a deal came together.

Illustrating how rapidly things appeared to be devolving, Trump wrote in a Twitter post that he has told staff to prepare for a series of executive actions that can be implemented if no deal is reached.

“Upon departing the Oval Office for Ohio, I’ve notified my staff to continue working on an Executive Order with respect to Payroll Tax Cut, Eviction Protections, Unemployment Extensions, and Student Loan Repayment Options,” he wrote on Twitter.

Trump has in the past, though, threatened to sign something and then reversed course.

The evening meeting is expected to be a lengthy negotiating session that could determine whether a near-term deal is possible at all. The same group has been meeting nearly daily for more than a week, with occasional signs of incremental progress but also much public posturing and finger-pointing.

The coronavirus pandemic has hammered the U.S. economy since February, and some of the largest provisions in the $2 trillion Cares Act, which passed in March, have lapsed. Meanwhile, a new report on jobless claims on Thursday found that 1.2 million Americans filed jobless claims last week, the 20th straight week more than 1 million people have sought aid.

Despite the weak economic conditions and the continued spread of the pandemic, a compromise has remained distant. In an interview on CNBC on Thursday, Pelosi said Republicans’ refusal to recognize the needs that exist in the country is standing in the way of getting an agreement.

“Perhaps you mistook them for somebody who gives a damn,” Pelosi said. “That’s the problem. See, the thing is, they don’t believe in governance.”

Speaking on the Senate floor a short time later, McConnell blamed Democrats for the expiration of emergency unemployment benefits, because Democrats objected when Republicans tried last week to renew them on a short-term basis. The $3.4 trillion bill House Democrats passed in May would extend the $600 extra weekly benefit through January, but Republicans didn’t offer a counter-proposal or start negotiating until last week, at which point the benefit expiration was imminent.

Republicans have sought to extend the benefits at a lower level, arguing that the $600 weekly bonus — coming on top of whatever state unemployment offices pays — acts as a disincentive for people to return to work.

McConnell also cited a Washington Post article that found Schumer had at one point wrongly described McConnell’s proposal to extend liability protections to businesses, health care workers, schools and others. McConnell is insisting this provision be part of any bill.

“Instead of getting serious, the Democratic leaders have chosen instead to misrepresent and even lie about what’s at stake,” McConnell said.

White House officials began actively pursuing the executive order alternative a few days ago.

Although Democrats have rejected the idea that Trump could spend money without Congress’ approval, the Trump administration has asked federal agencies to identify all of the money they have not yet spent from the $2 trillion Cares Act, which passed in March. White House officials are trying to determine whether this money could be redirected and used for other purposes, such as temporary unemployment benefits.

Pelosi has said that Trump could act unilaterally to extend the eviction moratorium, and speaking on CNBC she encouraged him to do so — while saying that it would have little value without money for rental and housing assistance.

Republicans are rejecting spending anywhere near what Democrats have demanded, but a half-dozen or so Senate Republicans who are up for re-election in November support more generous expenditures, such as additional aid for cities and states. Democrats want around $1 trillion in state and local aid, but Trump has dismissed that demand as a “bailout” for mismanaged states, and the administration put $150 billion on the table earlier this week.

Democrats are pushing to renew $600 weekly emergency unemployment benefits that expired last week; the administration has offered $400 weekly through early December. Democrats are also pushing for money for food stamps and child care. The two sides are arguing about money for schools and the postal service. Republicans have sought to link some of the school money to schools reopening, which Democrats oppose. There is a dispute about pensions, and multiple other issues also remain unresolved.

McConnell has repeatedly acknowledged the divisions in his own conference, with some 20 GOP senators reluctant to spend any more money at all after Congress already approved four bipartisan bills in March and April totaling around $3 trillion. McConnell is not taking an active part in the talks and has said he’ll support any deal the administration officials and Democrats are able to reach.

Senate Republicans did not appear deeply engaged Thursday, attending their daily lunch where salmon and macaroni and cheese was served but the coronavirus negotiations were barely discussed. “It’s a whole lot of nothing,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).

“I can’t tell you how disappointed I am that more progress hasn’t been made,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), blaming Democrats for the stall. “Frankly I thought given everything that was going on eventually that fever would break.”

Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.

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