WASHINGTON – Legislators who participated in weekend talks on a large measure of coronavirus relief reported progress on Saturday as political pressure increases to restore a recently expired $ 600 per week supplemental unemployment benefit and send funds to help schools reopen.
“This was the longest meeting we had and it was more productive than the other meetings,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat. “We are not close yet, but it was a productive discussion, now each party knows where they are.”
Schumer spoke with Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, after meeting for three hours with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows.
The Democratic duo is eager for an expansive deal, as are President Donald Trump and top Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
But perhaps half of the Senate Republicans, mostly conservatives and those not facing tough careers this fall, are likely to oppose any deal.
Previous talks produced little progress. The administration is willing to extend the $ 600 unemployment benefit, at least in the short term, but opposes other Democratic demands such as aid to state and local governments, food stamp increases, and assistance to tenants and homeowners.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin once again warned that the amount of the unemployment benefit will be much less than it is today.
Pelosi mentioned food aid and funds for voting by mail after the negotiation session ended. She and Schumer seemed more optimistic than after previous meetings.
Restoring the $ 600 supplemental unemployment benefit is extremely important to Trump, Mnuchin said. “We are still a long way off and I don’t want to suggest that a deal is imminent because it is not,” Meadows said later. “There are still substantial differences, but we have made good progress.
The additional unemployment benefit officially expired on Friday, and Democrats have made it clear that they will not extend it without securing other aid priorities. Anything that the unemployment aid negotiators agree on will be retroactive, but outdated state systems are likely to take weeks to restore benefits.
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Republicans in the Senate had been struggling to cut the $ 600 benefit, saying it should be cut so that people don’t earn more in unemployment than they would if they returned to work. But his resolve weakened when the benefit expired and Trump abruptly indicated that he wants to keep the $ 600 for now.
The package will be the fifth legislative response to the pandemic and could well be the last before the November elections. The only other legislation to pass on the agenda is a provisional spending measure that should move forward in September.
Since May, Republicans who control the Senate have kept aid negotiations “on hold” in a strategy aimed at reducing the amount. But as the pandemic emerged over the summer, and fractures within the Republican Party eroded the party’s negotiating position, Republicans showed greater flexibility.
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Even with signs of progress in the talks, the list of issues to be negotiated remains disappointing.
Democrats, for example, are pushing hard for an increase in food stamp benefits. Republicans added $ 20 billion for agricultural businesses, but nothing for increased food stamp benefits in their $ 1 billion proposal.
Meadows played a major role in killing an increase in food aid during talks about the $ 2 billion aid bill in March.
“We have traditionally had a partnership between farms and families, and they have constantly broken that,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, the top Democrat on the Senate Committee on Agriculture.