Coronavirus talks on life support as parties dig in, pass blame
The White House and congressional Democrats warned Thursday night that they remain far apart on coronavirus relief, raising new doubts that they can reach a consensus on sweeping legislation to address the public health crisis and the economic devastation it has caused.
The four key negotiators — Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) — emerged from a more than three-hour meeting in the Capitol with significant policy differences unresolved despite a self-imposed end-of-the-week deadline.
To hear each side tell the tale, the other is to blame.
“We understand where we are and where they are. … I think there’s a lot of issues we are close to a compromise position on, but I think there’s a handful of very big issues that we are still very far apart,” Mnuchin said.
Schumer said Democrats had asked Mnuchin and Meadows “to meet us in the middle,” and the GOP negotiators refused.
“They said, ‘No, it has to be mostly in our direction,’ ” Schumer said. “They were unwilling to meet in the middle.”
Schumer declined to provide specifics surrounding the Democrats’ offer, but Pelosi suggested it was related to the timeline governing the various benefits on the table, not a reduction in the size or scope of those benefits over the near-term.
“If we need to cut back on some of the timing to reduce the cost, we can do that,” she said, in what represents a new concession from Democrats. “But our priorities don’t go away.”
Meadows countered that it was Republicans who had offered “significantly greater” compromises than Democrats, whom he accused of not being “serious” about wanting a deal.
President Trump is “coming to the realization that perhaps some of our Democrats, both in the House in the Senate, are not serious about compromise and are not serious about trying to meet the needs of the American people,” he said.
Similar to Democrats, Meadows and Mnuchin did not specify what they had put on the table, but argued that they had offered “very fair compromises” on unemployment. The $600-per-week federal unemployment benefit expired Friday.
The House Democratic bill would extend that through early next year.
The group also discussed an eviction moratorium and rental assistance, according to Mnuchin. But they are also “very far apart” on key issues, including money for state and local government.
Republicans have resisted new state funding, wary of “bailing out” states for bad budget decisions made prior to the pandemic. With that in mind, the Senate GOP package offered more flexibility for the $150 billion already appropriated by Congress, but no new money.
Democrats, meanwhile, are asking for roughly $1 trillion in new funding to help state and local governments as the spread of the coronavirus has heightened the need for emergency services while simultaneously drying up their tax base.
Mnuchin said Trump, who had called the GOP negotiators three times during Thursday’s meeting, is simply not willing to sign a bill “that has a massive amount of money to bail out state and local [governments].”
“The president is prepared to do something for state and local that deals with the issue of additional coronavirus expenses,” he said, pointing specifically to first responders, hospitals, police officers and teachers.
The group has met almost daily since last Monday but made little visible progress as they face fierce political and policy headwinds that make getting a deal difficult. It’s unclear if they will meet again Friday, and neither side sounded positive about being able to meet that deadline.
The tone after Thursday’s meeting was a U-turn from earlier this week — when both sides were touting that the talks were their “most productive” — and mirrors the growing pessimism around the Capitol that they will get an agreement.
Pelosi, at one point, suggested the negotiations got heated, comparing Meadows’s behavior to that of Trump’s last year, when Democrats accused the president of slamming the table and storming out of the room during closed-door negotiations over the budget.
“I just would like to say that I saw something familiar in the room,” Pelosi said. “You know, I’ve been in the White House when the president has slammed the table and walked out. Well that’s really what Mr. Meadows did — slam the table and walk out.”
Meadows denied the accusation, calling it “fabricated.”
“I don’t know what she’s talking about,” he said. “I didn’t walk out of any meeting all day”
What happens if negotiators aren’t able to reach a deal on Friday is unclear.
Mnuchin and Meadows again floated the idea of a pared down deal — what they’re calling a “skinny” agreement. But the Democrats have routinely rejected that strategy, and Pelosi on Thursday said their idea of skinny was actually “anorexic.”
“It is so clear that we should do something, and we should do something big,” she said.
The White House has signaled that it is willing to walk away from the talks if they don’t believe an agreement can be reached.
“We’re not going to just keep on coming back every day if we can’t get to a deal. We’ve said by the end of the week that we wanted to reach an agreement on the major issues. … The president wants to get a deal or he’ll move on and take other actions,” Mnuchin said.
Trump is looking at taking executive action dealing with unemployment insurance, school loans, renter protections from evictions and a payroll tax cut.
“The president’s first choice is to do a deal,” Mnuchin said. “If we conclude tomorrow that there’s not a compromised position on the major issues, the president has alternatives.”
Schumer warned that any executive orders would be met with legal challenges, and that Meadows and Mnuchin agreed it was not a “good choice.”
“It’s not a good choice at all and they admitted that in the room. They said ‘that’s not a good choice,’ ” Schumer said. “So we plead with them, continue to negotiate.”