Stakes Rise For Virus Talks As Jobless Aid Lapses, GDP Drops

WASHINGTON (AP) -
President Donald Trump, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows talk before Trump speaks with reporters on the South Lawn of the White House, Wednesday, July 29, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Frustrated negotiators of a massive coronavirus relief bill face heightened pressure with Thursday’s brutal economic news and the rapidly approaching lapse in a $600 per-week expanded jobless benefit that has helped prop up consumer demand.

Talks are at a standstill with few reasons for optimism despite sweeping agreement among Washington’s top power players that Congress must pass further relief in coming days and weeks.

President Donald Trump is eager for another COVID relief package, also a priority for GOP allies like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, as well as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer. Democrats hold a strong negotiating hand, with Republicans badly divided over their own proposal.

Raising the stakes, a bleak government report released Thursday said the economy shrank at a 33% annualized rate in the second quarter of the year, a stark reminder of the economic damage afflicting the country as lawmakers debate the size and scope of new relief.

But bipartisan talks have yet to reach a serious, productive phase. White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, a relative newcomer to high-stakes Capital Hill negotiations, declared Wednesday that the two sides are “miles apart.”

Democrats are playing hardball so far, insisting on a package that’s far larger than the $1 trillion-plus measure unveiled by McConnell on Monday. Thursday brought more tit-for-tat.

“They won’t engage. Period,” McConnell, R-Ky., said as he opened the Senate. “The Democrats are saying, my way or the highway.”

In an interview late Wednesday, McConnell showed a willingness to consider some Democratic priorities, like additional food aid. He also said extending additional jobless benefits was urgent and made clear that he’s standing behind Trump.

“The economy does need more help. We have divided government. We have to talk to each other,” McConnell said in an interview. “And we have to try to get an outcome.”

Schumer continued his daily fusillade against McConnell and Republicans controlling the Senate, noting that McConnell “refuses to go in the room” and join the talks in person, instead transferring ownership of the talks to Meadows, along with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who has been a key architect of previous accords.

“We’re trying to negotiate,” Schumer said. “Who’s holding things up?”

In a piece of legislative theatre, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., sought unanimous stand-alone Senate approval of a conservative GOP plan to sharply cut back the $600 per week unemployment to $200, saying that the current benefit discourages people from returning to work. Democrats countered with a plan to extend the $600 benefit through January. Both ideas predictably failed.