White House, Congress talks on COVID-19 bill to resume Monday afternoon

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Congressional Democrats and Trump administration officials will resume talks aimed at hammering out a coronavirus relief bill on Monday afternoon, after missing a vital deadline to extend relief benefits to tens of millions of jobless Americans.

Top Democrats in Congress and top representatives of President Donald Trump were due to meet at 1 p.m. EDT (1700 GMT) in the U.S. Capitol, according to a House aide familiar with the arrangements. Negotiators reported some progress over the weekend. But the two sides remained far apart, with top Republican lawmakers on the sidelines of the negotiations.

After passing more than $3 trillion in relief legislation early in the crisis, Congress last week missed a Friday deadline to extend the $600 per week in enhanced unemployment payments that have played a key role in propping up the U.S. economy.

House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows have taken the lead in talks, after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell last week unveiled a $1 trillion Republican proposal that met immediate resistance from some of his fellow Senate Republicans.

The extension of enhanced federal unemployment benefits has proved to be a major stumbling block in the talks, and a top Federal Reserve official warned that failure to secure some form of extension would result in a weaker economy.

Hours before the talks were due to resume, Pelosi made it clear that she would not go along with Republican proposals to slash the weekly $600 unemployment benefit.

"No," Pelosi told CNN. "You're not saying to the American people: We have more infections, we have more deaths, we have more unemployment, we have more hunger and now we're going to cut your benefit. That's just not going to happen."

Trump wants to see immediate progress on extending unemployment benefits and protections against eviction, White House adviser Peter Navarro told Fox News. The administration is also considering options for possible unilateral actions if no relief deal is reached, the Washington Post reported.

Democrats are also continuing to press for about $1 trillion in aid to state and local governments.

The White House and congressional Republicans want to trim the weekly jobless aid, and have rejected as too costly the state and local assistance package that was included in legislation passed by the Democratic-led House in May.

Republicans favoring a reduction in the unemployment aid have said it is a disincentive for people to work.

However, Dallas Federal Reserve Bank President Robert Kaplan said on Monday that economic data does not show the $600-a-week benefit hurts the overall job market.

"While it may have made it hard for certain individual businesses to hire, it has helped create jobs, because it has helped bolster consumer spending, so the net effect still has probably been positive for the economy for employment," Kaplan told Bloomberg TV.

Pelosi, the nation's top elected Democrat, on Sunday accused the White House and Trump's fellow Republicans on Capitol Hill of thinking too small to confront a health crisis.

"We must defeat this virus," she said. "And that's one of the points that we still have not come to any agreement on."

Meadows said on Sunday he was not optimistic a deal could be reached quickly on broad legislation, and he once again called on Democrats to sign onto a week-long extension of enhanced jobless benefits to buy time for more talks.

"We continue to see really a stonewalling of any piecemeal type of legislation that happens on Capitol Hill," he told CBS' "Face the Nation." "Hopefully, that will change in the coming days."

There are some areas where lawmakers and the Trump administration may be able to come together quickly.

Both Republicans and Democrats want to renew a moratorium on evictions, which had spared Americans the stress of being left homeless while out of work because of the pandemic. The moratorium expired on July 24.

Likewise, there is broad support for another round of direct payments to taxpayers.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle, Richard Cowan, Ann Saphir and Pete Schroeder; writing by David Morgan, Tim Ahmann and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)

08/03/2020 14:43

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