Coronavirus talks collapse as negotiators fail to reach deal
Bipartisan talks aimed at finding a deal on a fifth coronavirus bill collapsed on Friday, all-but-guaranteeing Congress and the White House will not be able to reach a compromise despite a steady uptick in cases and lingering economic aftershocks.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows met for less than two hours with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) as part of a Hail Mary effort to revive the negotiations on a fifth coronavirus bill, which already appeared to be on life support.
But they emerged with no progress. Instead, the GOP negotiators and Democratic leadership traded blame over the impasse, and the administration officials said they will recommend President Trump move forward with executive orders as soon as this weekend.
Schumer and Pelosi said they doubled down on their offer to reduce their $3.4 trillion price tag in exchange for Republicans agreeing to raise their figure by $1 trillion, but were rebuffed.
“They rejected it. They said they couldn’t go much above their existing $1 trillion,” Schumer said. “Meet us in the middle, God’s sake, please for the sake of America. Meet us in the middle, don’t say my way or no way, which is what they’re saying they don’t want to come off their number.”
Trump in a tweet said Democrats were “only interested in bailout money for poorly run Democratic cities and states,” referring to a stalemate in the talks on aid to states. “We are going a different way,” he said, seemingly hinting at the executive action.
Mnuchin, meanwhile, said that the Friday discussion, viewed as a last-ditch effort, was largely a rehash of their more than three-hour talk from Thursday night, underscoring how entrenched both sides are in their negotiating positions.
“Unfortunately, we did not make any progress today and we discussed the same issues,” Mnuchin said.
How the stalemate gets broken is unclear.
Pelosi told the administration officials to return to the negotiating table when they are willing to up the price tag of a potential agreement.
“I’ve told them, ‘come back when you are ready to give us a higher number,’ ” she said.
Pelosi and Schumer, in a joint press conference before Friday’s meeting, said they had offered to drop their roughly $3.4 trillion top-line by $1 trillion, if the GOP negotiators would agree to raise their approximately $1 trillion package by a trillion. The strategy would have effectively split the cost difference between the two sides and left them to figure out a price tag between $2 trillion and $2.4 trillion.
A bill below $2 trillion could neither pass the House, nor get the support of Senate Democrats, according to Schumer. Though Senate Republicans hold a 53-47 majority, they are expected to need to lean heavily on Democrats to be able to pass a fifth coronavirus bill.
But Republicans, aware that a significant contingent of their caucus are increasingly wary of another multitrillion-dollar package, have sought to keep their price tag lower. Roughly a third of the Senate GOP caucus is expected to oppose any bill and they’ve warned that going above $2 trillion isn’t palatable.
And Mnuchin, going into Friday’s meeting, called increasing the GOP package by $1 trillion a “non-starter.” Meadows added that he didn’t believe it was “in the cards.”
Mnuchin said he was willing to hear “new proposals” from Democrats. But after meeting almost every day since last Monday, the GOP negotiators said there were no plans to meet this weekend, marking the clearest sign yet that they will not get an agreement. They will miss a self-imposed Friday deadline to get at least an agreement in principle.
Mnuchin pointed to unemployment assistance and funding for state and local governments, whose budgets are under strain as they try to balance an increase in the need for emergency services with their tax base drying up, as the key to reviving any potential agreement.
“I think there’s a lot of areas of compromise. I think if we can reach an agreement on state and local and unemployment, we will reach an overall deal. And if we can’t, we can’t,” Mnuchin said.
He said the White House asked Democrats for a “specific compromise” on the state and local funding. He did not provide details on what they were asking for but said they had “not received proposals on that.”
Democrats are asking for $915 billion in new funding for states and local governments, while Republicans are offering $150 billion. The initial GOP package included no new funding, but flexibility for the $150 billion appropriated by Congress as part of the March CARES Act.
But they had also yet to resolve differences on funds for testing and financial help for schools that are weighing reopening for in-person classes in a matter of weeks.
With no deal on the horizon, Meadows and Mnuchin said they will now recommend Trump take executive action to address assistance for renters, student loans and unemployment insurance, after a $600 per week federal benefit expired last week.
“We’re going to take executive orders, to try to alleviate some of the pain that people are experiencing,” Meadows said.
Each of the four previous coronavirus bills passed Congress with either unanimous or limited opposition. But the growing politicization of the virus response efforts and the growing shadow of the November election injected new hurdles into the talks over a fifth coronavirus package.
As the talks have yielded little progress, the behind-the-scenes frustration has increasingly spilled into the public.
Pelosi on Thursday accused Meadows of slamming the table and walking out of the meeting, something that former House conservative bomb thrower dismissed as “fabricated.”
Schumer, on Friday, appeared to single out Meadows as the reason they haven’t been able to come up with an agreement, telling reporters “what is happening is Mr. Meadows is from the tea party.”
Meadows, however, signaled that the White House will invoke the executive orders and blame Democrats heading into November for the failure to get a sweeping deal that would address both the health crisis and the economic fallout from the virus.
“I am extremely disappointed that we came up here today just to hear the same thing repeated over and over again, which is the same thing we’ve heard repeated for the last two weeks,” he said.
He accused Democrats of saying publicly that they want a deal while stonewalling behind closed doors.
“I think it’s interesting just to hear the comments from Sen. Schumer and Speaker Pelosi saying that they want to deal when behind closed doors, their actions do not indicate the same thing,” he said.
Republicans were deeply divided on another package, undermining their leverage in the talks. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who was not in the room for the negotiations, estimated that approximately 20 Republicans wouldn’t vote for anything. And GOP senators were also at odds over how to address the federal unemployment benefit, something Democrats believed strengthened their leverage.
Pelosi shot down a question Friday about if she had overplayed her hand by rejecting a smaller deal.
“No, we didn’t. … We haven’t overplayed our hand,” she told MSNBC. “We aren’t overplaying our hand when we are factually presenting what the needs are for our families, for our teachers, for our schools.”
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