White House, Democrats at odds over cost of coronavirus aid bill

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By Patricia Zengerle and David Morgan

Senate Majority Leader  said on Thursday the U.S. economy needs an “additional boost” to cope with fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, as Republicans and Democrats remained far apart about what to include in another wave of relief.

Republican President Donald Trump, who has threatened to act unilaterally if Congress does not agree on a further aid package, said he was working on an executive order targeting eviction protections and unemployment benefits.

Meanwhile, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows began another round of negotiations in the Capitol, where they huddled with House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer.

Even though many senators already have left town, the four negotiators were continuing efforts for a deal that could be voted upon by summoning senators back to Washington.

Before entering Pelosi’s office, Meadows told reporters that an overall cost of this next coronavirus aid bill had to be agreed upon. Without that, Meadows said, there would be “very little incentive to have further conversations.”

Democrats have been pushing for a $3.4 trillion relief bill, while Republicans last week proposed $1 trillion.

“We’ve made no deadlines,” on the duration of the negotiations, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters.

Trump’s executive order would also address student loan repayment options and payroll tax cuts – a proposal Trump has raised repeatedly, which was met with little enthusiasm from Democrats or his fellow Republicans.

Congress’ top two Democrats and White House negotiators have been talking for nearly two weeks on next steps to address a crisis that has killed more than 157,000 Americans and thrown tens of millions out of work.

Pelosi said she would not back down on a demand to reinstate the $600 weekly enhanced unemployment payments that have been a lifeline for people who lost their jobs in the pandemic but recently expired. Republicans want to cut the payment, calling it a disincentive to work.

“When they come to the table and are like, ‘$600 – how could it be?’ they’re just demonstrating their condescension to America’s working families,” Pelosi told a news conference, after earlier suggesting Republicans did not give a “damn” about Americans who are hurting.

She rejected Republican proposals to agree on a temporary solution while negotiations continue, and said she hoped Trump would take executive action to extend a moratorium on evictions that expired late last month.

McConnell said he agreed with Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell and Mnuchin that agreement is needed on another aid package, even though some of his fellow Republicans do not think so.

“The economy does need an additional boost,” McConnell told CNBC. Nonpartisan analysts say McConnell’s Republicans face a risk of losing their slim Senate majority in November’s elections.

McConnell, who met with Trump on Thursday but kept mum about their talks, said that while the Senate would be in session next week, he would give at least 24 hours notice of any votes.

“We might not get a deal,” Republican Senator Richard Shelby told reporters. “There’s a lot of pessimism here.”

As negotiations dragged on, some Democrats suggested that Meadows’ background as a hard-line conservative in Congress might impede progress.

“Mark Meadows is in this (negotiating) room for the expressed purpose of representing the division within the Republican caucus,” said Democratic Senator Chris Coons.

Meadows acknowledged he can be stubborn, but said Pelosi is too. “This is a negotiating strategy that the speaker often deploys: wear you down until finally you say, ‘I’ve had enough’ and you give in to her demands,” he told reporters on Wednesday evening.

“Anybody who’s covered Congress long enough knows that I typically will not concede as readily as some might think,” Meadows said.

Pelosi and Schumer have pushed for a comprehensive package of assistance for the unemployed, the poor, hospitals, schools, and state and local governments.

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