WASHINGTON (AP) - Negotiators on a huge coronavirus relief bill reported slight progress after talks resumed Monday afternoon in the Capitol, with issues like food for the poor and aid to schools struggling to reopen safely assuming a higher profile in the talks.
Multiple obstacles remain, including an impasse so far on extending a $600-per-week pandemic jobless benefit, funding for the Postal Service, and aid to renters facing eviction. Democratic negotiators spoke of progress at almost the very moment that top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell was slamming them for taking a hard line in the talks.
All sides predict a long slog ahead. Several more days of talks are expected, if not more, as lawmakers seek to deliver what will likely be the final legislative response to the pandemic before the November election.
“We are really getting an understanding of each side’s position. And we’re making some progress on certain issues moving closer together,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. “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."
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, a lead negotiator for President Donald Trump, said afterward that “we continue to make a little bit of progress" and that the administration is not insistent on a small-bore approach centered on extending the supplemental unemployment benefit and leaving other items for later. A GOP move to advance a slimmed-down relief package has been a recent point of conflict, with Democrats insisting there must be a comprehensive deal.
“We’re open to a bigger package if we can reach an agreement,” Mnuchin said.
On the Senate floor, McConnell, R-Ky., re-upped his complaint that Democrats are taking too tough a line. McConnell is not a direct participant in the talks but is likely to be an important force in closing out any potential agreement.
“The Speaker of the House and the Democratic Leader are continuing to say ‘our way or the highway' with a massive wish list for left-wing lobbyists that was slapped together a few weeks ago called a coronavirus bill," McConnell said.
Speaking to reporters after the two-hour session, Democratic negotiators pressed the case for additional food aid, funding for the Postal Service, and the $600-per-week jobless benefit that lapsed last week. The benefit has helped prop up the economy and family budgets as the coronavirus has wrought havoc.
The White House is seeking opportunities to boost Trump, like providing another round of $1,200 stimulus payments and extending the supplemental jobless benefit and partial eviction ban. Pelosi, the top Democratic negotiator, appears intent on an agreement as well, but she's made it clear she needs big money for state and local governments, unemployment benefits and food aid.
“It was productive, we’re moving down the track. We still have our differences, we are trying to have a clearer understanding of what the needs are, and the needs are that millions of children in our country are food insecure," Pelosi said. "Millions of people in our country are concerned about being evicted. Tens of millions of people are on unemployment insurance."
Most members of the Democratic-controlled House have left Washington and won't return until there is an agreement to vote on, but the GOP-held Senate is trapped in the capital.
Areas of agreement already include the $1,200 direct payment and changes to the Paycheck Protection Program to permit especially hard-hit businesses to obtain another loan under generous forgiveness terms.
But the terms and structure of the unemployment benefit remain a huge sticking point, negotiators said Sunday, and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows hasn't made any concessions on the almost $1 trillion Pelosi wants for state and local governments grappling with pandemic-related revenue losses.
Pelosi said she'd consider reducing the $600 benefit for people in states with lower unemployment rates. Republicans want to cut the benefit to encourage beneficiaries to return to work and say it is bad policy since it pays many jobless people more money than they made at their previous jobs.
“Right now, today, we have an emergency," Pelosi said Monday on CNN. "A building is on fire and they are deciding how much water they want to have in the bucket. This is very important to stop — millions of people could have fallen into poverty without this $600.”
Another sticking point is that Republicans want to give more school aid to systems that are restarting with in-school learning, even as Dr. Deborah Birx, Trump's top coronavirus adviser, cautioned that schools in areas with spikes in cases should delay reopening.
Pelosi said Monday's talks featured extensive discussion on reopening schools. Schumer said the discussion got into the details on the dollar figures involving school aid and food aid.
The House passed a $3.5 trillion measure in May, but Republicans controlling the Senate have demanded a slower approach, saying it was necessary to take a “pause” before passing additional legislation. Since they announced that strategy, however, coronavirus caseloads have spiked and the economy has absorbed an enormous blow.