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Both sides say progress made in talks on pandemic relief

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi addressed reporters Saturday in Washington after a three-hour discussion with White House officials.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi addressed reporters Saturday in Washington after a three-hour discussion with White House officials. Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Negotiations between top White House officials and congressional Democrats on coronavirus relief legislation showed signs of progress Saturday, after days of stalemate that caused 30 million Americans to lose emergency unemployment benefits.

Emerging from a three-hour meeting with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, said they had had the most productive discussion to date, although they had not yet struck a deal.

“It was the best discussion we’ve had so far, and I’d call it progress but a ways to go,” Schumer said. He said aides would be meeting Sunday to go over details, and the principals would meet again Monday.

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Mnuchin and Meadows agreed as they addressed reporters at the Capitol a short time later.

“It’s time to make a deal,” Meadows said. “And if we’re going to be able to succeed in this, it’s taking what started as probably the first day of a good foundation, productive discussions, and building upon those until we reach an agreement hopefully in the next couple of days.”

Meadows added, “There are still substantial differences but we did make good progress.”

It was a striking change of tone from Friday, when Meadows and Pelosi exchanged harsh public criticism about who was to blame for the expiration of $600 weekly enhanced unemployment benefits at a time of great economic uncertainty.

Those benefits, which Congress approved in March, expired Friday.

White House officials have been trying to get Democrats to agree to a short-term fix that would extend the unemployment benefits and address a handful of other items such as continuing a moratorium on evictions that also recently expired.

Democrats, whose starting point is a $3 trillion bill the House passed in May, have been holding out for a more comprehensive response that would address the many economic and health care needs besetting the nation.

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Mnuchin said Saturday that even as the two sides were finding areas of agreement on policy, there was still disagreement on the best way to move forward legislatively.

“They’ve made clear that there’s a desire on their part to do an entire package; we’ve made clear that we are willing to deal with the short-term issues, pass something quickly, and come back to the larger issues,” Mnuchin said. “So we’re at an impasse on that.”

Nevertheless the positive comments after the meeting suggested that the two sides might finally be heading toward a deal, after four straight days of meetings this past week produced nothing but angry rhetoric.

Recent polling has shown voters increasingly disgusted with Congress, which has not acted since spring even as the coronavirus has been spiking and the economic recovery has stalled. More than 150,000 Americans have died.

“Millions are on the verge of eviction. People need resources in order to meet the needs of their families,” Pelosi said. “This is not a usual discussion, because the urgency is so great.”

Mnuchin said the two sides agreed on the need to extend unemployment insurance and the eviction moratorium and provide money for schools and small businesses.

Vast differences remain, though, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s demand for a liability shield for businesses, health care providers, and others, and Democrats’ demand for $1 trillion in additional aid to cities and states.

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McConnell was home in Kentucky on Saturday and did not participate in the negotiations, which he’s largely left to administration officials. But Meadows and Mnuchin said they were keeping him and Trump closely apprised of developments.

Senate Republican leaders waited until last Monday to release a $1 trillion bill that was their response to the Democrats’ plan, but it immediately encountered resistance from within the Senate GOP conference. The White House quickly abandoned it and began pushing for some kind of short-term fix for the unemployment benefits.

The Republicans have floated a few plans for extending the enhanced unemployment benefits, which come on top of whatever states already offer. Republicans say the $600 weekly payment is so generous it provides a disincentive for people to return to work, though Democrats disagree. One approach that’s attracted GOP support would reduce the benefit to $200 weekly, or a formula that would replace around two-thirds of a worker’s wages.

Democrats insist any such approach is insufficient for the need in the country and the fragile state of the economy, which could suffer overall from the evaporation of the benefits that have helped newly unemployed workers pay rent and buy groceries.