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Democrats, GOP far apart as virus aid talks intensify

UPDATED: Tue., July 28, 2020

By Lisa Mascaro Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Negotiations launched, the differences over the next coronavirus aid package are vast, a gulf between Democrats’ $3 trillion proposal and Republicans $1 trillion counteroffer, with millions of Americans’ jobless benefits, school reopenings and eviction protections at stake.

As top White House negotiators return to Capitol Hill on Tuesday the leverage is apparent: They are meeting at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office. Republicans are so deeply divided over the prospect of big government spending it’s leaving Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell with a weakened hand.

It’s unclear whether any agreement can be reached between Congress and President Donald Trump before Friday’s deadline for expiring aid.

“We cannot afford to fail,” Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said as the chamber opened.

The outcome will be a defining one for the president and the parties heading into the November election as an uneasy nation is watching and waiting for Washington to bring some end to the health crisis and devastating economic fallout.

Key to the debate is the $600 weekly unemployment benefit bump that is expiring for millions of jobless Americans. Republicans want to slash it to $200 a week as an incentive to push people back to work. Democrats have shown flickers of willingness to curb the federal aid, but are refusing to go that low.

McConnell is defending cuts to unemployment assistance saying Democrats “pretend it’s controversial.” Republicans, he argued, believe the federal supplement is too generous, on top of state benefits, and people should not be paid more while they are at home than they would if they were on the job.

“The American people don’t call that a controversy, they call that common sense,” he said.

Pelosi dismissed the GOP’s proposal as “wrong” and Schumer responded by waving a copy of a New York newspaper on the Senate floor with the headline summing up the Republican attitude as: “Let them eat cake.”

With the virus death toll climbing and 4.2 million infections nationwide, both parties are eager for a deal. There is widespread agreement that more money is needed for virus testing, to help schools prepare to open in the fall and to shore up small businesses but they are far apart on the details.

Republicans seek $16 billion for virus testing but Democrats want $75 billion.

For school reopenings, Democrats want four times the $105 billion Republicans propose.

Democrats want to extend a federal eviction moratorium on millions of rental units that is expiring Friday, but Republicans are silent on evictions.

Republicans provided no new funding for cash-strapped states and cities, preferring to provide flexibility in how they spend previously approved aid. Democrats propose to provide nearly $1 trillion to avert municipal layoffs of government workers.

One area of common ground is agreement on a new round of $1,200 direct payments to Americans earning $75,000 or less.

But Democrats also add a “heroes’ pay” bonus for frontline essential workers, money food stamps and other assistance that Republicans do not provide.

“We have to do what’s right for the American people,” Pelosi said late Monday after meeting with the White House negotiators.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows will return to Capitol Hill after huddling for nearly two hours late Monday with Pelosi and Schumer at the speaker’s office.

The Republicans come to the negotiating table hobbled by infighting and delays. McConnell, R-Ky., said he wanted to hit “pause” on new spending after Congress approved a sweeping $2.2 trillion relief package in March. But Pelosi, D-Calif., took the opposite approach, swiftly passing a $3 trillion effort with robust Democratic support. In the intervening months, the crisis deepened.

Even as McConnell, flanked by top GOP chairs Monday at the Capitol, unveiled his long-awaited proposal, conservative Republicans quickly broke ranks arguing the spending was too much and priorities misplaced. Half the Republican senators could vote against the bill, some warned.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. scoffed that McConnell’s bill was sure to win majority support — from Democrats.

“He has all the Democrats on his side,” Paul said of the Republican leader.

Republicans were scrambling to justify providing $1.7 billion for a new FBI headquarters in Washington, a non-pandemic-related expense that’s a top priority of the president but not of lawmakers or McConnell. Trump’s hotel is across the street from it on Pennsylvania Avenue.

As bipartisan talks unfold, the White House is now suggesting a narrower relief package may be all that’s possible with Friday’s approaching deadlines. Democrats have dismissed that as too meager.

The $600 weekly jobless benefits boost, approved as part of the March aid package, officially expires July 31, but because of the way states process unemployment payments, the cutoff was effectively Saturday.

Under the GOP proposal, the jobless boost would be reduced to $200 a week for two months through September and phased out to a new system that ensures no more than 70% of an employee’s previous pay. States could request an additional two months, if needed, to make the transition.

Economists widely see signs of trouble in the economy, which showed an uptick in the spring as some states eased stay-home orders and businesses reopened, but it now faces fresh turmoil with a prolonged virus crisis as states clamp down again.

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