After a two-hour meeting that stretched into the night, the chief negotiators — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows — made clear they remained at an impasse.
Administration officials said they proposed a temporary extension of the expanded unemployment insurance, but Democrats rejected that offer.
“We made progress on certain issues; we're still very far apart,” Mnuchin said. “We made a proposal for a short-term deal and as of now, they’ve repeated they don’t want to do that.”
In their own remarks after the meeting, Democrats questioned the utility of a temporary extension if there was no broader agreement. Both Schumer and Pelosi accused Republicans and the administration officials of not grasping the “gravity” of the crisis.
“What is a one-week extension good for?” Pelosi said. “A one-week extension is good if you have a bill and you’re working it out, the details.”
The rapid shift in strategy from Republicans reflected the immense pressure that GOP senators had faced as the expanded jobless benefits are set to expire Friday. On Thursday afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) took procedural steps to set up a legislative path to swiftly pass any short-term extension of jobless benefits should there be a plan that could pass the Senate.
At his news conference on Thursday, President Trump reiterated that he would support a “temporary extension of expanded unemployment benefits” and also urged for some solution to deal with a federal eviction moratorium that expired last week.
Earlier Thursday, as they left a party lunch, GOP senators appeared to be coalescing around a proposal drafted by Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Mike Braun (R-Ind.) that would continue the expanded jobless benefits but at $200 per week, or an amount roughly two-thirds of an individual’s average wage, rather than the current $600-per-week increase approved by Congress in March. The Republicans’ ultimate plan was not finalized, however.
Before he met with Democrats, Meadows told reporters Trump would support a one-week extension of unemployment benefits at $600, an approach rejected by Democratic leaders as a “stunt.” Meadows and Mnuchin have also expressed alarm about letting the unemployment benefit expire altogether.
“I think there is a sensitivity to the cliff that we’re facing,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) told reporters Thursday.
The move by McConnell, senators said, was primarily meant to try to break the Senate’s logjam over not only the expiring benefits but also on a broader relief package meant to address the ongoing economic and public health crisis imposed by the novel coronavirus. The proposal by Johnson and Braun is slightly less generous than Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley’s (R-Iowa) initial proposal on unemployment, released on Monday.
The Cares Act approved by Congress in March gave every person on unemployment an extra $600-per-week bonus on top of their typical state unemployment allocation, but the additional federal benefit expires Friday. The Johnson-Braun proposal would give states the option to extend that benefit at $200 per week instead of $600.
It also allows states to switch to a complicated wage replacement plan in which the state and federal government would provide a targeted replacement of two-thirds of what the worker was making before losing his or her job.
Democrats continued to scoff and reject the Republicans’ latest play, noting that the emerging plan from the GOP on temporary jobless benefits was less generous than what had been included in a bigger, $1 trillion Senate Republican plan released earlier this week.
“The bottom line is very simple,” Schumer said. “This new proposal moves things even backward. Instead of a 30 percent cut from what people are getting, it’s a 33 percent cut. And we all know that the proposal that is in existence now has kept millions out of poverty.”
Earlier, McConnell and Schumer exchanged the most biting criticism yet of each other’s coronavirus relief proposals — clouding the prospects of even a short-term deal. The political acrimony also came as statistics released Thursday showed the U.S. economy shrank 9.5 percent from April to June — the largest quarterly decline since the government began publishing the data seven decades ago.
But the discouraging economic figures did little to move the needle in Congress, as senators instead consumed themselves with partisan bickering and political theater.
A trio of conservative senators, led by Johnson, took to the floor to try to unanimously pass his temporary unemployment insurance proposal.
That effort from Republicans was summarily blocked by Schumer, who led his own group of Democrats to try to unanimously pass the $3 trillion Democratic coronavirus plan the House cleared in May. That, too, was blocked — this time by Republicans.
The procedural shenanigans were not meant to actually enact policy but rather to help further the political blame game as Congress prepared to leave town without an agreement. A pair of dueling speeches on the Senate floor from its top two leaders also appeared to be aimed at setting up political blame as Congress remained on the cusp of failure to reach a deal as expanded jobless benefits for about 20 million Americans were set to expire.
One Republican pollster, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss private conversations, said there is growing alarm among GOP lawmakers about the political consequences of letting the unemployment benefits lapse.
The approaching deadline amounts to a financial cliff for consumers that could send the economy reeling. Republicans have increasingly talked up a potential short-term extension of the jobless benefits as negotiations continue on a larger deal, but Democrats — who have had a comprehensive plan since May — have refused that option.
In a floor speech earlier Thursday, McConnell blasted the $3 trillion Democratic plan as a “totally unserious proposal” and accused Democratic leaders of refusing to allow their rank-and-file members to engage in discussions with Republicans. But McConnell has largely extricated himself from the primary negotiations on the next phase of coronavirus legislation, as internal divisions among Republicans weaken his leverage.
McConnell had been quickly followed by Schumer, who noted that the majority leader said about 20 GOP senators are expected to oppose any plan and Republicans had wasted precious time in responding to the pandemic, which has killed nearly 150,000 people in the United States.
“The House speaker moves the goal posts while the Democratic leader hides the football,” McConnell said Thursday morning. “They won’t engage when the administration tries to discuss our comprehensive plan. They won’t engage when the administration floats a narrower proposal. They basically won’t engage, period.”
Schumer said Republicans “dithered for months” and then released a “half-baked, halfhearted proposal of half-measures.” He also noted that the main negotiations were among him, Pelosi, Meadows and Mnuchin — and not McConnell.
“I would remind him, he refuses to go into the room when Speaker Pelosi, Secretary Mnuchin, Chief of Staff Meadows and I sit in there,” Schumer said. “Once again, Senator McConnell engages in ‘Alice in Wonderland’ tactics and speeches and words. What he says is exactly the opposite of what is true.”