Congress’ top Democratic and Republican leaders traded bitter accusations Thursday ahead of a critical negotiating session on a coronavirus relief bill, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., alleging that Republicans don’t give “a damn” about those in need.
With talks appearing to falter, President Donald Trump told reporters that he was preparing to sign executive orders as soon as Friday morning that he says would extend enhanced unemployment benefits and provide a payroll tax cut. Trump has in the past, though, threatened to sign something and then reversed course.
The messy back and forth came just hours before Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and top White House officials are set to meet in the Capitol for another round of talks. Enhanced unemployment benefits expired last week for more than 30 million Americans and an eviction moratorium also expired. The small business Paycheck Protection Program is set to expire on Saturday. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act passed in March provided relief to certain student loan borrowers, but those benefits are set to expire Sept. 30.
Democrats are pushing for a massive aid package but they have been unable to reach an agreement with the White House, which favors a smaller deal.
“We’re at an impasse right now,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., told reporters.
White House officials had hoped to reach a deal by Friday, but Democrats said they would not be pinned down to that timeline.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., accused Democrats of lying about the GOP’s proposals, and said he would be keeping the Senate in session “unless and until the Democrats demonstrate they will never let an agreement materialize.” Multiple Republican senators said they were heading to their home states, but were prepared to 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.
White House officials have mentioned the possibility of pursuing a payroll tax cut, eviction protections, and unemployment extension for several days, but the student loan repayment push appears to be a newer initiative.
Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., are scheduled to meet at 5 p.m. on Thursday with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows for what is expected to be a lengthy negotiating session that could determine whether a deal is possible at all. The same group has been meeting nearly daily for almost 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 have lapsed. Meanwhile, a new report on jobless claims on Thursday found that 1.2 million Americans filed jobless claims last week. It was a slight decline from the previous week, but 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. Meadows declared Wednesday evening that the two sides remained “trillions of dollars apart,” adding: “We’re still in need of a breakthrough moment.”
Meadows accused Pelosi of trying to “wear you down until you finally say ‘I’ve had enough’ and you give in to her demands,” adding: “I typically will not concede as readily as some might think.”
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. House Democrats passed a $3.4 trillion bill in May that 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. Studies indicate up to two-thirds of those who received the bonus were making more from unemployment than they were on their previous jobs.
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, according to two people briefed on the effort. 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.
Democrats continued to insist Thursday that talks must continue until a deal is reached.
“We are not going to give up. We are going to keep fighting until we achieve the caliber of legislation the American people during this time of great crisis need and deserve,” Schumer said on the Senate floor. “We’re going to keep working until we get it done.”
As part of the talks, Democrats’ starting point was the $3.4 trillion bill that passed the House in May. Republicans are rejecting spending anywhere near that amount of money, but Senate Republicans are divided. A half-dozen or so Senate Republicans who are up for re-election in November support more generous expenditures, with some supporting hundreds of billions of dollars for state and local governments. 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.
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 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 macaroni and cheese was served but the coronavirus negotiations were barely discussed. “It’s a whole lot of nothing,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Tex.
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.