Jul 31, 2020 10:03 PM

Trump, GOP soften on opposition to $600 jobless benefit

Posted Jul 31, 2020 10:03 PM
President Trump during Thursday Coronavirus Task Force briefing-image courtesy White House
President Trump during Thursday Coronavirus Task Force briefing-image courtesy White House

WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House and its GOP allies appear to be retreating from their opposition to a $600-per-week supplemental unemployment benefit that has propped up the economy and family budgets but is expiring Friday.

President Donald Trump is eager to extend the benefit, undercutting his GOP allies on Capitol Hill who have spent considerable effort devising an alternative that could unite Republicans.

The unemployment insurance is a principal element as talks continue on a COVID-19 relief bill, which is expected to grow considerably from a $1 trillion-plus GOP draft released this week. Top Democrats announced a meeting with administration representatives for Saturday morning after Thursday night talks at the Capitol failed to produce a breakthrough.

The two sides took their case to the media Friday morning, with White House chief of staff Mark Meadows speaking to reporters on short notice at the exact moment House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appeared at her weekly news conference.

Meadows accused Democrats of refusing to negotiate, saying Trump has instructed him to be “aggressive and forward-leaning” in trying to extend the supplemental jobless benefit.

“Democrats have made zero offers over the last three days,” said Meadows, an inexperienced negotiator and former tea party lawmaker. He said Democrats are “willing to play politics” and are acting like they “hold all the cards.”

The White House on Thursday offered a one-week extension of the $600 weekly unemployment benefit, top Democrats said, but Pelosi rejected it, saying it needs to be addressed as part of a far more sweeping bill that would deliver aid to state and local governments, help for the poor and funding for schools and colleges to address the pandemic. Without action, the unemployment benefit runs out Friday — and both the House and Senate have left Washington.

“Clearly they did not understand the gravity of the situation,” Pelosi said. She said a short-term extension only makes sense if the two sides are close to a deal.

“Why don’t we just get the job done?” she asked.

An aide familiar with the talks said Pelosi rejected an administration offer of a four-month extension of the benefit at $400 per week, combined with additional provisions for particularly hard-hit businesses and a shield against lawsuits for businesses, schools and other entities that reopen as the pandemic continues to rage. The aide wasn’t supposed to divulge contents of the talks and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

Pelosi, brimming with confidence, offered a tutorial on negotiating Friday.

“There are two things to remember. One is the person you’re negotiating with has to want something” for the American people, Pelosi said. “And they have to know you will walk” if you don’t get a good enough agreement.

Republicans in the Senate had been fighting to trim back the $600 jobless benefit in the next coronavirus package, but their resolve weakened as the expiration of the popular benefit neared — and as Trump undercut their position by signaling he wants to keep the full $600 benefit for now.

“We want a temporary extension of enhanced unemployment benefits,” Trump said at the White House on Thursday. “This will provide a critical bridge for Americans who lost their jobs to the pandemic through no fault of their own.”

On Friday, Trump took to Twitter to explicitly endorse extending the $600 payment and criticizing top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer.

“Very disappointed in @SenSchumer for blocking the temporary extension of the $600 unemployment benefits. The Do Nothing Democrats are more interested in playing politics than in helping our deserving people,” Trump tweeted.

There continues to be agreement among Washington’s top power players that Congress must pass further relief in the coming days and weeks.

“Do we want to continue to come to an agreement? Absolutely,” Schumer said. “But it’s got to meet the gravity of the problem.”

Democrats hold a strong negotiating hand — exploiting GOP divisions over whether more aid is even needed — and they are expected to deliver a necessary trove of votes.

Both sides say the talks have not produced much progress, but they could be nearing a critical phase over the weekend and into next week. The pending COVID-19 rescue bill, the fifth since the pandemic has struck, is likely the last one before the November election.

Republicans controlling the Senate have kept the relief measure on “pause” in a strategy aimed at reducing its price tag. But as the pandemic has worsened in past weeks — and as fractures inside the GOP have eroded the party’s negotiating position — Republicans have displayed some greater flexibility.

“The Democrats are playing for Nov. 3, and we’re playing for the good of the people. It is a disgrace that they are not negotiating,” Trump said Friday. “I think it’s a bad political game. I think it hurts them.”

Also at issue in the negotiations is an almost $1 trillion Democratic demand for funding for state and local governments, a second $1,200 direct payment to most American adults, more than $100 billion to help schools reopen and a liability shield measure that is essential to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

Meadows played a role in killing an increase in food aid during talks on a $2 trillion relief bill in March, but Democrats are pressing hard for a boost in food stamp benefits. Republicans added $20 billion for agribusinesses but nothing for greater food stamp benefits.

“Traditionally we’ve had a partnership between farms and families, and they’ve consistently broken that,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, the top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee.

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WASHINGTON (AP) — With aid expiring, the White House offered a short-term extension Thursday of a $600 weekly unemployment benefit that has helped keep families and the economy afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic, but Democrats rejected it, saying President Donald Trump’s team failed to grasp the severity of the crisis.

Democratic leaders panned the idea in late-night talks at the Capitol, opting to keep the pressure on for a more sweeping bill that would deliver aid to state and local governments, help for the poor and funding for schools and colleges to address the pandemic. Without action, the benefit runs out Friday.

“They want to do one small thing that won’t solve the problem,” said top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer after meeting with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows.

“We have to have a bill, but they just don’t realize how big it has to be,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

Republicans have been fighting to trim back the $600 jobless benefit in the next coronavirus package, but their resolve weakened with the looming expiration of the popular benefit — and as Trump indicated that he supports keeping the full $600 benefit for now.

“We want a temporary extension of enhanced unemployment benefits,” Trump said at the White House. “This will provide a critical bridge for Americans who lost their jobs to the pandemic through no fault of their own.”

He added: “It has to be substantial.”

During the two-hour meeting at the Capitol, Trump’s team offered a weeklong extension. But Democrats have so far rejected a piecemeal approach, saying the next relief bill needs to move as a complete package. The sides agreed to talk again Friday and into the weekend.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sent members of U.S. Senate home Thursday. photo courtesy office of Majority Leader
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sent members of U.S. Senate home Thursday. photo courtesy office of Majority Leader

Before Trump spoke, top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell adjourned the chamber for the weekend while taking a procedural step that could allow voting on a potential compromise next week. Negotiators for the first time this week reported at least some progress.

“On certain issues we made progress. On certain issues we’re still very far apart,” Mnuchin said after the two-hour meeting in Pelosi’s office. “The speaker and Sen. Schumer said — and we feel the same way — that it is our objective to try to reach an agreement that’s good for the American people.”

There continues to be agreement among Washington’s top power players that Congress must pass further relief in the coming days and weeks.

Trump is eager for another round of relief, and it’s also a priority for GOP allies like McConnell, as well as Pelosi and Schumer, D-N.Y. Democrats hold a strong negotiating hand — exploiting GOP divisions over whether more aid is even needed — and they are expected to deliver a necessary trove of votes.

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.

“This jarring news should compel Congress to move swiftly to provide targeted and temporary assistance to unemployed Americans, employers, and state and local governments, and liability protections for businesses who follow public health guidelines,” said Neal Bradley of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the powerful business group.

But bipartisan talks have yet to reach a serious, productive phase. Democrats are playing hardball, 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 said as he opened the Senate. “The Democrats are saying, my way or the highway.”

Pelosi and McConnell have an extensive history, however. They often find ways to reach deals, though the process involves intense maneuvering and plenty of cross words.

McConnell showed a willingness in recent days to consider some Democratic priorities, like additional food aid. He and Trump have made plain they are intent on getting a bill.

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 Mnuchin, who has been a key architect of previous accords.

In another signal that Republicans are willing to yield on the $600 jobless benefit, Arizona Republican Martha McSally, who is facing a tough reelection race this fall, offered a one-week extension of the benefit on the Senate floor. Schumer blocked the move.

Other stark differences remain between the $3 trillion proposal from Democrats and $1 trillion counter from Republicans. Money for states and cities is a crucial dividing line as local governments plead for help to shore up budgets and prevent deeper layoffs as they incur COVID-19 costs and lost tax revenue in shutdown economies.

It’s clear that Democrats are trying to push an advantage in the negotiations because Republicans are so split over the prospect of additional government spending and jobless benefits. Among the issues sure to gather momentum is a Democratic demand for a 15% increase in food stamp benefits.

Trump appears worried about the expiration of the $600 unemployment benefit boost as well as an expiring federal eviction moratorium on millions of rental units, potentially sending households into devastating turmoil.

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WASHINGTON (AP) — A deadlocked Senate on Thursday exited Washington for the weekend without acting to extend a $600 per-week expanded jobless benefit that has helped keep both families and the economy afloat as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the country.

Friday’s expiration of the $600 jobless benefit sent Republicans controlling the Senate scrambling to respond. Top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell made a procedural move to make it easier to reach a potential compromise next week that would extend the bonus unemployment benefit while talks on a broader COVID relief measure grind on.

“We’re so far apart on a longer-term deal right now, that even if we said ‘yes’ to a longer-term deal you could (have) weeks of negotiation without getting to common ground,” said White House chief of staff Mark Meadows.

But Democrats have so far rejected this piecemeal approach, saying the next relief bill needs to move as a complete package. Any short-term jobless benefits extension of less than $600 per week is likely to be a non-starter with them. 

Talks on the relief bill 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 bill, and it’s also a priority for GOP allies like 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 Thursdaysaid 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. 

“This jarring news should compel Congress to move swiftly to provide targeted and temporary assistance to unemployed Americans, employers, and state and local governments, and liability protections for businesses who follow public health guidelines,” said Neal Bradley of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the powerful business group.

But bipartisan talks have yet to reach a serious, productive phase. Democrats are playing hardball, 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 said as he opened the Senate. “The Democrats are saying, my way or the highway.” 

In an interview late Wednesday, he showed a willingness to consider some Democratic priorities, like additional food aid. He also said extending the 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 on the PBS NewsHour. “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 an earlier piece of legislative theater, 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 benefit to $200, saying that the current amount discourages people from returning to work. Democrats countered with a plan to extend the $600 benefit through January. Both ideas predictably failed, as did an effort by Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., to extend the $600 benefit for just one week.

Meanwhile, in-person talks were briefly on hold as Pelosi traveled to Atlanta for the funeral of Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights icon. Pelosi’s office announced a meeting for Thursday night.

Other stark differences remain between the $3 trillion proposal from Democrats and $1 trillion counter from Republicans. Money for states and cities is a crucial dividing line as local governments plead for help to shore up budgets and prevent deeper layoffs as they incur COVID-19 costs and lost tax revenue in shutdown economies.

Democrats proposed nearly $1 trillion for the local governments, but Trump and Republicans are resisting sending the states and cities more cash. Instead, the GOP offers states flexibility to use $150 billion previously allotted for the virus on other needs. 

It’s clear that Democrats are trying to push an advantage in the negotiations because Republicans are so split over the prospect of additional government spending. Among the issues sure to gather momentum is a Democratic demand for a 15% increase in food stamp benefits — an idea that could gain more momentum as a counter to reduced unemployment checks.

Trump has dismissed the GOP bill as “semi-irrelevant” since it leaves out so many Democratic items.

Trump appears worried about the expiration of the $600 unemployment benefit boost as well as an expiring federal eviction moratorium on millions of rental units, potentially sending households into devastating turmoil. 

Trump has bristled at one provision of the GOP bill — he said his GOP allies should “go back to school and learn” after they balked at $1.7 billion for FBI headquarters. Trump wants the FBI’s central building to remain in Washington, across the street from his Trump International Hotel. If the FBI moved its headquarters, the site would become prime real estate for a competing hotel. 

McConnell has rejected the FBI funding request — added to a $300 billion-plus appropriations package in private talks between Meadows and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala. — since it is unrelated to virus relief.