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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nation’s governors raise concerns about implementing Trump executive moves, call on Congress to act

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers trade blame as talks show no signs of life

Banners against eviction are displayed on a building in Washington on Sunday. (Eric Baradat/Agence France-Press/Getty Images)

The nation’s governors raised concerns on a bipartisan basis Monday about implementing President Trump’s new executive action aimed at extending enhanced unemployment insurance, and called on Congress to act instead.

But on Capitol Hill, negotiations showed no signs of life as Democrats and Republicans traded accusations about their failure to reach a deal during two weeks of talks that collapsed on Friday.

In their statement, the governors pointed to “significant administrative burdens and costs” associated with attempting to implement a new plan Trump announced over the weekend, which would attempt to provide $400 weekly emergency unemployment benefits, with states required to apply for the funds and pay a quarter of the cost.

The statement was issued by National Governors Association chairman Andrew M. Cuomo, the Democratic governor of New York, and vice chairman Asa Hutchinson, the Republican governor of Arkansas.

“The best way forward is for the Congress and the administration to get back to the negotiating table and come up with a workable solution,” the pair wrote.

There was little sign this was going to happen. In dueling speeches on the Senate floor Monday afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) each insisted that the other party’s refusal to compromise was the reason no deal had been struck on a new coronavirus relief bill.

“Democrats said ‘Our way or the highway,’” McConnell contended.

In Schumer’s telling, it was Trump administration officials who’d said, “'No, it’s going to be our way or no way. We’re not going to meet you in the middle.'”

The talks failed Friday with the parties hundreds of billions if not trillions of dollars apart, and stuck on critical issues including aid to cities and states and extending enhanced unemployment insurance benefits. A $600 weekly federal jobless benefit that Congress approved in March expired July 31 for some 30 million workers.

With no deal at hand, Trump announced a series of four executive actions over the weekend directed at limiting evictions, deferring student loan payments and payroll taxes, and restoring the lapsed unemployment benefit at $400 a week.

But the measures are already causing confusion and consternation about their limited impact and difficulty to implement.

In the case of the unemployment benefit, the administration is planning to tap unspent disaster relief funds maintained by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and supply them to states that agree to a 25 percent match — although administration officials have suggested that the matching requirement could be waived.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said over the weekend that the states could get the new system up and running “immediately,” but on Monday he amended that timeline, saying that most of the states should be able to implement it “within the next week or two.”

But state officials are expressing growing consternation about whether it will be workable at all. Even if it is, the limited funding available in the federal account means it could be exhausted in a matter of weeks.

“It’s not workable in its current form,” Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, said Monday. He said the Trump administration needed to rework its approach or Congress needed to pass a new law.

Officials in Arizona, Colorado, Maryland and Michigan also said Monday they are awaiting further guidance from Washington, only adding to the days in which millions of Americans have gone without enhanced federal jobless aid since the last round of relief expired July 31.

In Washington, state officials expressed concerns that the way in which the White House devised the program threatened to cut into funds that they had planned to use to pay for personal protective equipment and other costs associated with the coronavirus pandemic.

“The program appears woefully insufficient relative to the scale of the crisis, unworkable in its proposed form, and a bad deal for workers, employers, and states,” said Mike Faulk, a spokesman for Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D).

Trump’s executive order on unemployment benefits envisions states using leftover money from $150 billion that was provided by the federal Cares Act in March to pay for their share of the cost.

Mnuchin contended in an interview on CNBC on Monday that states have “plenty of money” available, but many state officials disagree. In some cases, even if money has not actually been spent it has already been obligated for certain costs associated with the coronavirus response.

Even while defending the executive actions Trump took over the weekend, White House officials said they still hoped to strike a broader deal with Congress. The administration acknowledges that many steps they would like to take — such as a new round of $1,200 checks to individuals, and money to schools and small businesses — are not possible without congressional action.

Trump and Mnuchin both tried to apply pressure to Democrats to resume stalled talks. Trump wrote on Twitter that Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) “want to make a deal. Amazing how it all works, isn’t it.”

It was unclear exactly what Trump was referring to, although Pelosi and Schumer both have said that they, too, still favor a legislative solution if the administration would meet them in the middle and compromise.

Despite the rhetoric — and a claim by Trump on Sunday that the Democrats had called him — there has been no communication between the two sides since two weeks of fruitless talks collapsed on Friday, according to Democratic aides. Prospects for any further negotiations are unclear. Millions remain unemployed and coronavirus deaths are rising.

The Post spoke to Americans about the stresses of an uncertain income during the coronavirus pandemic. (Video: The Washington Post)

Asked on Monday whether he might reach out to Pelosi or Schumer, Mnuchin said he would be happy to meet with them anytime “they’re willing to negotiate and have a new proposal.”

On a call Monday with some of the nation’s governors, Mnuchin and Vice President Pence urged the group to pressure their state delegations and Pelosi and Schumer to resume talks, according to a readout of the call provided by Inslee’s office.

A couple governors on the call expressed some concerns about how the new unemployment benefit program would work, according to the readout. Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (D) said that now that he knows that he could use the Cares Act money for unemployment insurance he wishes he had it back, and that additional state aid is a necessity.

Despite bipartisan agreement on a number of issues, the parties could not reach consensus on key issues over two weeks of talks involving Schumer, Pelosi, Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows. Disagreements included the overall size of the bill, with Democrats starting at $3.4 trillion but suggesting they were willing to end up around $2 trillion; Republicans, who started at $1 trillion, said $2 trillion was too high.

Democrats’ demand for nearly $1 trillion in aid to state and local governments also was a major roadblock. The Trump administration was unwilling to agree to more than $150 billion in additional aid to cities and states, after they already received $150 billion in the Cares Act in March.

Mnuchin argued Monday that much of that money remains unspent, and said demanding $1 trillion more is “absurd.” In their statement on Monday, Cuomo and Hutchinson reiterated their plea for an additional $500 billion in funds.

On Twitter, Trump repeated his claim that Democrats were insisting on “BAILOUT MONEY for Democrat run cities and states that are failing badly.” In fact, governors and municipal leaders of both parties have been pleading for additional assistance, in light of plummeting tax revenue that has been forcing mass layoffs.