Congress Heads for Weekend With No Deal on Virus Relief in Sight

The Senate left Washington for the weekend after a fourth day of negotiations yielded little substantial progress on narrowing differences between Republicans and Democrats on a plan to bolster the coronavirus-ravaged U.S. economy.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer rejected a temporary extension of lapsed supplemental unemployment insurance proposed by President Donald Trump’s Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Chief of Staff Mark Meadows.

“On certain issues we made progress, on certain issues we’re still very far apart,” Mnuchin said after leaving a two-hour meeting in Pelosi’s office Thursday night. He said they would continue talking Friday and Saturday “as long as it takes to get this done.”

Republicans including Trump are pressuring Democrats to go along with a stopgap extension of the expanded unemployment benefit and a moratorium on evictions while talks continue on a more comprehensive virus relief bill. Those two measures were part of the March stimulus package and are now expired, leaving millions of Americans without that safety net.

Pelosi said a one-week extension to avoid a lapse in benefits would be “worthless” without the prospect of a comprehensive deal.

“We just don’t think they really understand the gravity of the problem,” Schumer said.

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The Senate is scheduled to begin its August break at the end of next week. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said the chamber won’t be in session next week but members will be subject to recall on 24 hours notice if a deal is reached and ready for a vote.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Thursday moved forward with a plan to set up votes next week on Republican proposals to extend the lapsed supplemental unemployment insurance.

The GOP gambit is almost certain to fail because McConnell would need Democratic votes to pass any legislation. But it will give Senate Republicans a chance to go on the record as saying they tried to act.

Republican Plans

Utah Republican Senator Mitt Romney and others have presented versions of a so-called skinny bill designed to keep millions of unemployed Americans from going entirely without the additional support they’ve counted on since the stimulus package was enacted in March.

Romney has proposed a three-month extension of unemployment benefits that would give states the option of an 80% wage replacement or $500 a week in August, $400 a week in September, and $300 a week in October.

The plan would also give states $2 billion to update their unemployment systems, which have been swamped during the Covid-19 pandemic and are often using outdated computers.

Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin earlier Thursday proposed a $200-a-week benefits enhancement in a move that was rejected by Senate Democrats as insufficient. The Johnson plan, backed by Indiana GOP Senator Mike Braun, would give states the option of providing the supplemental benefit at two-thirds of a prior wage, up to a cap of $500.

The debate comes amid grim economic news. U.S. gross domestic product shrank at an annualized pace of 32.9% in the second quarter, the steepest decline in records going back to 1947, the Commerce Department said Thursday. A separate report showed the number of Americans filing initial claims for unemployment benefits increased for a second straight week.

The two sides have to bridge significant differences between the $1 trillion stimulus plan the GOP released Monday and the $3.5 trillion package House Democrats passed in May.

The biggest roadblocks remained McConnell’s plan to shield employers against lawsuits stemming from Covid-19 infections, and Democrats’ drive to maintain the $600-a-week supplemental unemployment payments and provide $1 trillion in aid to state and local governments.

— With assistance by Erik Wasson, and Jordan Fabian

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