Frustration builds as negotiators struggle to reach COVID-19 deal
Congress is struggling to complete a deal on a fifth coronavirus relief bill, as frustration mounts amid missed deadlines and no progress.
After two weeks back in Washington, and little to show for it, negotiators say they are nowhere close to an agreement, and are facing growing skepticism about the chances for a deal that could bridge deep policy divisions as the November election draws closer.
“I’m telling people the truth that this entire thing has been a very impressively large cluster,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.). “As bad as … it is from the outside, they ought to see it from the inside … just the mess that this is.”
Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) added that “I think we’re all scratching our heads.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y), White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin met or spoke by phone every day during the past week.
But those talks, which ranged from 45-minute sessions to nearly two hours, have yielded few results and rounds of finger-pointing as the deadline to prevent the expiration of a $600-per-week federal unemployment benefit passed without an agreement.
“I’m of the view that he didn’t care a whit that benefits were lapsing,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), the top Democrat on the Finance Committee, about Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Schumer compared negotiating with the administration officials as being like “trying to nail jello to a wall.”
And Pelosi said negotiations were not on a “path” to a deal despite jobless claims climbing for a second week in a row. Roughly 30 million Americans are unemployed, and will now see a reduction in their benefits.
Meadows was equally bleak, characterizing himself as “not very optimistic” that they would get an agreement on the unemployment benefit or preventing evictions “anytime soon.”
The division between the two sides are steep: Democrats want to extend the $600 per week in additional unemployment benefits through early next year. They are proposing roughly $1 trillion in new help for state and local governments and are pushing for priorities like worker protections and a boost in food assistance.
But the White House is increasingly focused on trying to get a smaller deal amid deadlocks on unemployment, state and local aid and liability protections.
“We aren’t bickering. We are having major policy disagreements,” Pelosi said. “We don’t have shared values. That’s just the way it is.”
The House was initially expected to leave town on Friday until early September, but leadership has advised members to keep their travel plans flexible. The Senate is scheduled to leave Aug. 7.
A deal in a week, negotiators acknowledge, is unlikely.
“I don’t know that we’ve gotten to substantial discussions about policy differences because most of the discussion has not provided a foundation to have those in-depth policy discussions. That’s why I’m not very optimistic that we will have any kind of an agreement on a comprehensive bill in the near future,” Meadows said.
Pressed on what qualified as near future, he added: “I’m not even optimistic about next week.”
Lawmakers are signaling growing frustration.
“I don’t think there’s going to be any agreement. Democrats are not interested in solving the problem, they just like the politics of it,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said that it was “disappointing” that they couldn’t agree to a one-week unemployment fix ahead of the deadline and warned that if they aren’t able to get a larger deal during a once-in-a-century global health emergency they will be viewed as a failure.
“Congress has to rise to the crisis. It is too serious and if we can’t work together in a bipartisan, bicameral way in the midst of a persistent pandemic that is causing such harm to people’s health and to their economic stability then we will have failed the American people, so I just feel strongly that we have to get there,” she said.
Others argue that the economy, growing numbers of coronavirus cases and political calculations, including Trump’s slew of bad poll numbers, should all drive negotiators toward an agreement.
“The White House desperately needs an agreement,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.). “Both the magnitude of the challenge but they’re looking at a political reality [where] they have to get a deal.”
Republicans are divided themselves, and the White House and GOP have struggled to get on the same page. The two sides sparred this week over the administration’s demand to include $1.75 billion for constructing a new FBI building, and appear to be moving in different directions on liability reform.
McConnell has repeatedly vowed that the Senate will not move a bill unless it includes his five-year shield from coronavirus-related lawsuits. But the White House has signaled it does not see that being included in a smaller package. Asked if the administration was willing to pass on its inclusion, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said “that’s a question for Mitch McConnell.”
There’s also been plenty of mixed messaging.
After Meadows said the Senate would be taking the lead, a reporter noted McConnell had indicated that Mnuchin and Meadows are taking the lead in the talks.
“Well, I would not agree with his characterization if that’s what he said, is that what he said?” Meadows responded. “So he said it’s a White House-led process? I find that hard to believe.”
With little movement happening, and frustration bubbling among members, McConnell is turning the Senate toward a showdown over the unemployment benefits.
He’s expected to force a vote on a proposal from Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Mike Braun (R-Ind.) that would provide a two-thirds match, when state and federal benefits were combined, of a previous wage, with a cap of $500 per week on the federal benefit. If a state can’t implement the match, the federal government would provide a flat $200 per week.
But the measure is likely to fall short of the 60 votes needed to advance and could fail to get even a simple majority given the divisions among Republicans.
“Whether this goes anywhere, I don’t know. Does this go anywhere that 10 Democrats, or enough Democrats vote for it? I don’t know,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), a member of GOP leadership.
McConnell, asked about why he was forcing the debate, noted that “no progress is being made anywhere else.”
Republicans say they are eager to force Democrats amid frustration in their own caucus.
“We need to get things moving and this gets things moving. Our guys want to vote, they want to be able to prove they’re moving the ball down the field and the Democrats want to keep blocking,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.). “This exposes that. And hopefully it will get them to get serious about actually sitting down and working on a solution.”
Niv Ellis contributed.