Negotiators ‘Miles Apart’ on COVID-19 Funding, with Little Hope for Deal until September

Posted on August 13, 2020 by Marianne Levine and Sarah Ferris of Politico

White House officials and top Democrats concede that a coronavirus relief deal is far from reach following six days without in-person meetings — leaving little hope that relief for millions of Americans will arrive by month’s end.

As of Thursday, Washington’s top negotiators have no set plans to meet in the coming days, putting an indefinite halt to sputtering talks to assemble the next economic rescue package amid a pandemic that has infected over 5 million Americans. Democrats are now insisting that they won’t sit down with White House officials until their party agrees to spend at least $2 trillion, double the size of the GOP’s initial proposal, while Republican officials remain unwilling to raise the overall price tag.

The Senate is now expected to recess until Labor Day, after technically remaining in session an extra week amid a burst of bipartisan talks, though most of its members went home last week. The House had also already left for the rest of August and the first two weeks of September. Lawmakers in both chambers will be given 24 hours notice if they need to return to the Capitol to vote on any agreement.

Asked when she would next be meeting with Republicans, Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters on Thursday: “I don’t know. When they come in with $2 trillion.”

“When they’re ready to do that, we’ll sit down. We’re not inching away from their meager piecemeal proposal,” Pelosi said, pointing to a chart she presented that compared the Democratic and GOP plans for the relief package in areas like food assistance and testing. On one line, it said Democrats wanted to put $100 billion for rental assistance. On the GOP side, it said “nothing.”

“The press says, ‘why can’t you come to an agreement?’ Because we are miles apart in our values.”

Pelosi’s comments come one day after a brief phone call with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, during which the two sides only reiterated their demands. In another sign that talks are not moving, two of the key negotiators, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, are both away from Washington.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Thursday accused Democrats of “barely even pretending to negotiate.”

Speaking on the floor, McConnell scoffed at the Democratic leaders’ demands for Republicans to raise the price ceiling of their negotiations to $2 trillion from $1 trillion.

“The Speaker’s latest spin is that it is some heroic sacrifice to lower her demand from a made-up $3.5 trillion marker that was never going to become law to an equally made up $2.5 trillion marker,” McConnell said, referring to a mammoth Democratic package that the House passed in May. “That’s not negotiating. That’s throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks.”

The vitriol between Republicans and Democrats has been on full display as the two party leaders traded insults, even as they acknowledged the dire economic and health crises straining the nation.

Congress has been under intense pressure to deliver a deal, but has already blown past the deadlines for key programs such as the federal $600-per-week benefit for out-of-work Americans and the small business grant known as the Paycheck Protection Program. Federal protections for renters facing evictions has also expired.

The impasse over those programs — and more — led President Donald Trump over the weekend to issue executive actions in an attempt to circumvent Congress. The executive actions attempt to provide additional unemployment benefits to workers, defer payroll tax payment, extend the moratorium on most federal student loan payments until the end of the year and direct agencies to review how they can prevent evictions.

But Trump’s political move, in the face of mounting backlash over his response to the virus, will likely have a much different policy reality. Democrats have called the move blatantly unconstitutional and it’s unclear what affect the orders will have without congressional backing.

The next looming deadline in Washington is several weeks away — the Sept. 30 funding deadline, and lawmakers are already speculating that the coronavirus negotiations could be dragged into that same battle.

That would mean negotiations that began in earnest at the end of July could bleed into late September, with the American economy possibly hanging in the balance. And the pressure will only grow as millions of children begin the school year — whether in-person, remote or a hybrid — with many school districts increasingly desperate for help.

Pelosi has said the next package cannot wait six more weeks, and does not want to tie the trillion-dollar-plus relief talks into an already contentious government funding battle.

“We can’t wait until September 30,” Pelosi told reporters Thursday. “Because people will die.”

It’s unclear if a looming government shutdown is enough to break the gridlock, with Republicans and Democrats each sticking to their corners and Congress already proving that it’s willing to shut down federal agencies over a prolonged political battle.

Instead, many Republicans and Democrats believe that the sheer force of the virus itself — which has now killed more than 160,000 Americans and ravaged the U.S. economy — will force their party leaders’ hand.

The U.S. economy has also shown little sign of improvement despite the lifting of lockdowns across large swaths of the country: The Labor Department reported Thursday that 963,000 people filed for unemployment benefits last week, the first time weekly claims fell below 1 million since March, though it is still at historic levels. The unemployment rate in July was 10.2 percent.

The only thing that the two parties can agree on, it seems, is that there is no agreement.

“Treasury Secretary Mnuchin is working on that, but so far it’s a stalemate,” White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said Thursday on CNBC. “No question.”

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Negotiators ‘Miles Apart’ on COVID-19 Funding, with Little Hope for Deal until September