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Sides cite ‘productive’ but slow-moving coronavirus aid talks

Pelosi tells House Democrats she doesn’t believe a deal will come together this week

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, on their way to brief reporters about the relief bill talks on Capitol Hill on Aug. 3, 2020.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, on their way to brief reporters about the relief bill talks on Capitol Hill on Aug. 3, 2020. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Negotiations on a COVID-19 relief bill inched forward Monday during a two-hour meeting between congressional Democrats and key Trump administration officials, though the sides remain far apart on several key issues.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi told rank-and-file Democrats on a conference call that she sees talks bleeding into next week, when both chambers are scheduled to be out of session, according to two sources on the call who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Pelosi earlier characterized the meeting as “productive,” however, telling reporters it focused on education funding, as schools throughout the country struggle with dozens of issues related to remote learning or a hybrid schedule.

“Opening our schools is a place where we spent a good deal of time,” Pelosi said.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said negotiators went over the various funding levels for health care, education and economic programs in the dueling Democratic and GOP bills with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows.

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The goal of that exercise was to get a thorough understanding of each other’s positions and figure out how long funding could actually last as coronavirus cases continue spreading throughout the country.

“We’re making some progress on certain issues, moving closer together,” Schumer said. “There are a lot of issues that are still outstanding, but I think there is a desire to get something done as soon as we can.”

Both sides remained stuck on how much in enhanced unemployment insurance the federal government should pay for during the coming months as large swaths of the U.S. economy remain shuttered amid record-high COVID-19 cases and deaths. Democrats want to extend the additional payment of $600 per week that Congress approved in March, while Republicans say that level provides some people more money to stay home than to work.

Republicans tried to advance a proposal last week that would have provided an additional $200 per week on top of state unemployment insurance funding levels, but Democrats objected. Pelosi and Schumer also turned down an offer from the administration for a one-week extension of the $600 benefit, saying they are opposed to a piecemeal approach.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., on Monday said he plans to put forward a proposal that would provide 100 percent wage replacement, a possible compromise with Democrats, although he’s not a central negotiator at this point.

That’s up from 70 percent in a proposal from Senate Republicans last week, but regardless of the wage replacement rate, it would take states months to get up and running.

“I don’t mind federal supplements continuing. As a matter of fact I want them to, but the ceiling should be your actual wages,” Graham said.

Senate Finance Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, later said he could support such an amendment.

“I would interpret that as not being a disincentive to work,” Grassley said. “I don’t like it, but for a short period of time I would buy it.”

Grassley also expects negotiators to wrap up talks later this week, citing the Democratic National Convention that’s scheduled for the week of Aug. 17.

Among the other outstanding issues are how to insulate renters from evictions and homeowners from foreclosure, after previous protections ran out in late July.

President Donald Trump has been vocal about wanting to address evictions as well as enhanced unemployment, though he’s declined to discuss specifics and has not met with congressional leaders for negotiations. Trump on Monday floated the idea of using executive orders to assist in those two areas, although his ability to do so remains unclear.

“I’ll do it myself if I have to. I have a lot of powers with respect to executive orders. And we’re looking at that very seriously right now,” Trump said at the White House.

Mnuchin and Meadows declined to comment.

Extending the Paycheck Protection Program, the forgivable small-business loan program that expires Saturday, is not at the top of the to-do list because policymakers plan to retool the program for the funding that remains.

“That money we want to repurpose,” Mnuchin said. “I think most people who have been able to get the loan have already done so, so the focus on the PPP is using that money for people to get a second loan.”

Both sides remain far apart on the total dollar figure for the package as well, with negotiations working to bridge the gap between Democrats’ $3.5 trillion proposal and Senate Republicans’ $1 trillion plan.

Asked if Republicans are willing to spend more than that, Meadows replied that the two sides are “so far apart right now, that’s not even a valid question.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy are not in the negotiations, nor have they been during the past week. Mnuchin and Meadows spoke separately with both lawmakers Monday evening to brief them on the state of negotiations.

“We continue to make a little bit of progress, but we still have a lot of work to do,” Mnuchin said after his meeting with McConnell.

Congressional staff plan to work overnight with the four key negotiators meeting again Tuesday.

Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.

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