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Coronavirus aid talks set to drag into weekend, Schumer says

Top Democrats are still at odds with the White House, Republicans on more aid to states and localities and hospitals

Top Capitol Hill Democrats and Trump administration officials likely won’t wrap up talks over a new round of COVID-19 relief measures until early next week, according to one of the principal negotiators.

“We’ve had constructive talks, they are going to continue through the weekend. I don’t see any reason why we can’t come to an agreement soon,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said Friday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

In interviews Friday with other media outlets, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., signaled a willingness to make some concessions to Democrats.

McCarthy said he discussed with President Donald Trump on Thursday the possibility of combining small-business relief, including extra money for a separate disaster loan program Democrats have sought, with more aid to hospitals.

“Hospitals need the help,” McCarthy told the Wall Street Journal. “That would be a very smart move right now.”

Aides to Schumer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., discussed the evolving package with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and his staff on Thursday afternoon.

The negotiations have an element of urgency because the Small Business Administration reported Thursday that banks making forgivable loans through the new “Paycheck Protection Program” to businesses with 500 or fewer workers had burned through all the money Congress appropriated last month for that purpose.

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The Trump administration and congressional Republicans want to boost the initial funding round from $349 billion to $600 billion. But top Democrats have insisted on changes to that program that would direct more funds to communities where traditional banking services may be scarce.

“To give the money to the PPP program without correcting it would make no sense,” Schumer said.

Democrats’ unity cracking?

Bolstering GOP calls for a “clean” cash infusion into the program, however, were moderate Democrats in both chambers who were starting to stake out similar ground.

On Friday, Rep. Elaine Luria, a freshman Virginia lawmaker, released a statement calling on congressional leaders to take up additional funds for the PPP right away.

“When it comes to helping our small businesses recover, time is of the essence,” she said. “I am prepared to return to the Capitol to vote for a clean appropriations supplemental bill to replenish this funding and give our small businesses the resources they need.”

Trump won Luria’s district by 3.5 percentage points in 2016. She’s considered vulnerable this November, though Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates her race as “lean Democratic.”

In the Senate, Arizona Democrat Kyrsten Sinema tweeted her support for a clean small-business funding bill Thursday.

On Thursday, Karen G. Mills, who was SBA chief during President Barack Obama’s first term, said she’d been counseling top Democrats to put more money into the PPP immediately, before discussing changes to the program.

While Schumer noted that Trump made some conciliatory comments at his Thursday evening press conference, the president himself appeared to be in a combative mood Friday morning.

Trump blamed Democratic leaders for blocking small-business aid, tweeting that they should “come back to Washington and approve legislation to help families in America.”

Democrats also want the bill to double funds in last month’s $1.8 trillion aid package to help hospitals as well as state and local governments respond to a pandemic that had killed nearly 34,000 Americans as of early Friday afternoon, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

The economy has taken a severe hit as well, with over 20 million people filing for jobless benefits in the last month, and state and local coffers have been drained by coronavirus-related expenses and revenue losses.

“It’s vital we help small businesses,” Schumer said. “But if we don’t deal with the testing and health care problems, if we don’t deal with the local government problems, small businesses may have enough money to get back … but people won’t go out on the streets.”

Sharing the wealth

Democrats have proposed the next bill include $150 billion more for state and local governments and an additional $100 billion for hospitals. Both programs have run into criticism for the way the aid is being distributed under last month’s aid package, however.

The first $30 billion in hospital funding went out according to each provider’s share of traditional Medicare reimbursements, which critics say shortchanges hospitals serving lower-income populations and rural communities. And the first round of aid to states and local governments didn’t allocate funding based on infection rates, while local communities with fewer than 500,000 residents were largely cut out.

Schumer and Pelosi devised a plan to lower that threshold to 50,000 residents and steer more money to states with the highest shares of coronavirus infections. But county governments cried foul, arguing that the local aid formula would deliver a disproportionate share to cities.

City and county government officials presented a united front in a new letter to Trump and congressional leaders on Friday, however.

They called for more money specifically for local governments distributed “in a way that takes into account each level of governments’ role in responding to the pandemic,” according to the joint letter from the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the National Association of Counties and the National League of Cities.

Some Senate Republicans in recent days have appeared receptive to new funding for hospitals, states and localities, provided the money is distributed somewhat evenly.

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., focused his remarks on potential aid to hospitals, however, and McCarthy pointedly excluded money for states and localities in his comments on what a possible deal could look like.

Blunt told reporters that on a conference call with senators Thursday, Trump had expressed openness to some of the items Democrats are pushing.

And later on Thursday, Trump said he thought a negotiated solution was possible. “To be honest, I think … something is going to be happening,” he said at his nightly press conference.

“We’re negotiating with Democrats and they should, frankly, approve it quickly,” he continued. “I think it’s going to happen. It should happen really unanimously, but they’re trying to get things and we’re not too happy with what they’re trying to get.”

The Senate has a pro forma session scheduled for Monday at 2 p.m., at which time the chamber could potentially vote on a compromise package if a deal is reached. The House is in pro forma session on Tuesday at 10:30 a.m.

Passage would require unanimous consent, however, so any one lawmaker’s objection could gum up the process.

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

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