Coronavirus relief stalemate could drag on for weeks

  • Congress and the White House again made no progress toward a coronavirus relief agreement as financial lifelines for Americans continue to expire. 
  • It could take weeks more for lawmakers to even agree on another aid package as no talks are scheduled and 2020 political conventions will consume the major parties for the next two weeks. 
  • House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she will not restart discussions until Republicans increase their aid offer by $1 trillion, a step the GOP does not want to take.

An impasse over the next round of coronavirus aid will likely drag into the weekend after Democrats and Republicans described themselves as hopelessly far apart on a deal to combat raging economic and health-care crises.

Leaders in Washington followed a familiar script Thursday. They indicated the sides have made no progress toward an agreement.

They do not know when meaningful negotiations will restart. They called the opposing party unreasonable as millions of Americans wonder whether they can afford food or housing in the coming days and weeks. 

Negotiators' path to resolving vast differences of opinion over the best tools to stabilize a country ravaged by the pandemic looks murkier than ever. As the stalemate drags on, an ineffectual response from Congress risks hampering efforts to contain the world's worst virus outbreak and blowing up positive steps toward an improved economy. 

An agreement on legislation, let alone passage of a bill, looks weeks away. The House left Washington for all of August pending a deal on pandemic aid. The Senate typically leaves town for the weekend after its Thursday session. 

The parties' 2020 political conventions will consume their attention over the next two weeks. If they return next month without an agreement, lawmakers will have to consider coronavirus aid while trying to avoid a government shutdown by Sept. 30. 

It is unclear now when Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer will sit down with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows to resume discussions. Pelosi and Mnuchin last made contact by phone on Wednesday, when Mnuchin once again said the White House would not double the GOP's roughly $1 trillion aid offer. 

On Thursday, Pelosi said she does not have a timeline for when the sides will talk again. 

"I don't know. When they come in with $2 trillion," she told reporters at the Capitol. 

"We can't wait until Sept. 30. People will die," Pelosi said earlier in her news conference. 

A fifth coronavirus relief package has gone nowhere in two-and-a-half weeks as financial lifelines continue to fall to the wayside. First, a moratorium on evictions from federally-backed housing expired in late July. 

Then, enhanced federal unemployment insurance of $600 per week lapsed at the end of July. Over the weekend, the window to apply for Paycheck Protection Program small business loans closed. 

The job market has showed signs of improving despite sustained American failure to contain the virus. But even after three straight months of torrid job growth, the U.S. unemployment rate of 10.2% in July stood slightly higher than at any point during the Great Recession.

Financial markets have mostly shrugged off the the debacle in Washington, as the S&P 500 hovered just below its all-time high on Thursday. 

On Thursday, White House economic advisor Larry Kudlow told CNBC that Democrats have asked for "too much money." He said Democratic-backed "voting rights" measures designed to make it safer for Americans to cast ballots during the pandemic are part of "liberal, left wish lists" the president would reject.

"So far, it's a stalemate," Kudlow said. 

After talks collapsed, Trump took executive action over the weekend that aims to extend extra jobless benefits at a level of at least $300 per week, promote eviction protections, sustain existing student loan relief and create a payroll tax holiday. The orders could fall apart in court because Congress controls federal funding. 

In any case, governors have warned it could take outdated state unemployment systems weeks to adjust to the new rules and pay out benefits. 

It leaves an elusive deal in Congress as the most effective way to offer relief. But Pelosi, equipped with a visual aid highlighting key differences between the Democratic and GOP offers, said Thursday that the sides are "miles apart in our values." 

They have failed to bridge a gap on unemployment insurance as Democrats push to extend the $600 per week payment. Democrats want more than $900 billion for state and municipal aid, a figure the Trump administration has called unrealistic. 

Pelosi said Democrats have pushed for more than $60 billion in food assistance, while a Senate GOP bill released late last month called for only $250,000. A House bill passed in May included $100 billion in assistance for rent and mortgage payments, while the Senate plan did not include any additional funds. 

Pelosi also increased her request for school funding to $300 billion on Thursday, an increase from the $100 billion the House approved in May. Republicans have called for $105 billion for schools, with much of the money tied to physical reopening. 

Comments from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Thursday showed just how intractable the issues may prove. He described the request for more state and local aid as a "slush fund." 

He batted away Pelosi's request for the GOP to increase the price tag on its proposal by $1 trillion — which is apparently the one thing that could bring Democrats back to the table.

"The speaker's latest spin … is that it is some heroic sacrifice to lower her demand from a made up $3.5 trillion marker that was never going to become law to an equally made up $2.5 trillion marker," McConnell said.

"She calls this meeting in the middle? … That's not negotiating. That's throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks," he added. 

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