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Negotiators for Democrats, Trump administration report progress in COVID-19 aid talks

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) greets Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) after meeting Saturday at the Capitol with White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin on a COVID-19 relief bill.
(Manuel Balce Ceneta / Associated Press)

Lawmakers reported progress on a huge coronavirus relief bill Saturday, as political pressure mounts to restore an expired $600-per-week supplemental unemployment benefit and send funding to help schools reopen.

“This was the longest meeting we had, and it was more productive than the other meetings,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). “We’re not close yet, but it was a productive discussion — now each side knows where they’re at.”

Schumer spoke alongside House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) after meeting for three hours with Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows.

The Democratic leaders are eager for an expansive agreement, and President Trump and top Republicans have signaled more urgency than in previous weeks. But perhaps half of Senate Republicans, mostly conservatives and those not facing difficult races this fall, are likely to oppose any deal.

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Prior talks yielded little progress, and Saturday’s cautious optimism was a break from gloomy private assessments among GOP negotiators. The administration is willing to extend the newly expired $600 jobless benefit, at least in the short term, but is balking at other Democratic demands, such as aid for state and local governments, increases for food stamps and assistance to renters and homeowners.

Pelosi mentioned food aid and funding for voting by mail after the negotiating session was over. She and Schumer appeared more upbeat than they had after earlier meetings.

“We have to get rid of this virus so that we can open our economy, safely open our schools and to do so in a way that does not give a cut in benefits to American workers,” Pelosi said.

Mnuchin said restoring the $600 supplemental jobless benefit is important to Trump.

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“We’re still a long ways apart, and I don’t want to suggest that a deal is imminent, because it is not,” Meadows said after the meeting. “There are still substantial differences, but we did make good progress.”

The additional jobless benefit officially lapsed Friday, and Democrats have made clear that they will not extend it without securing other relief priorities. Whatever unemployment aid negotiators agree on will be made retroactive — but antiquated state systems are likely to take weeks to adjust.

Republicans in the Senate had been fighting to trim back the $600 benefit, saying it must be slashed so that people don’t make more in unemployment than they would if they returned to work. But their resolve weakened as the benefit expired, and Trump abruptly undercut their position by signaling that he wants to keep the full $600 for now.

On Friday, Trump used Twitter to explicitly endorse extending the $600 payment and to criticize Schumer.

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Washington’s top power players agree that Congress must pass further relief in the coming days and weeks. At stake beyond the $600 weekly jobless benefit is a fresh $1,200 direct payment to most Americans and hundreds of billions of dollars in other aid to states, businesses and the poor, among other elements.

Democrats hold a strong negotiating hand — exploiting GOP divisions — and they are expected to deliver a necessary trove of votes.

The COVID-19 package would be the fifth legislative response to the pandemic and could well be the last one before the November election. The only other must-pass legislation on the agenda is a stopgap spending measure that should advance in September.

Since May, Republicans controlling the Senate had kept the relief negotiations on pause in a strategy aimed at reducing its price tag. But as the pandemic surged back over the summer — and as fractures inside the GOP have eroded the party’s negotiating position — Republicans displayed more flexibility.

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Even with signs of progress in the talks, the list of items to negotiate remains daunting.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s must-have item is a liability shield from lawsuits for businesses, schools and charities that reopen as the pandemic goes on. The GOP’s business allies are strong backers, but the nation’s trial lawyers retain considerable clout in opposition. A compromise is probably a challenging but necessary part of a final deal.

Among the priorities for Democrats is a boost in food stamp benefits. Republicans added $20 billion for agribusinesses but no increase for food stamps in their $1-trillion proposal. Meadows played a role in killing an increase in food aid during talks on the $2-trillion relief bill in March, but Pelosi appears determined. The food stamp increases, many economists say, provide an immediate injection of demand into the economy, in addition to combating growing poverty.

Food aid was the first item Pelosi mentioned in a letter to fellow Democrats apprising them of the progress.

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“This is a very different kind of negotiation, because of what is at stake. Millions of children are food insecure, millions of families are at risk of eviction and, for the 19th straight week, over 1 million Americans applied for unemployment insurance,” Pelosi said.


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