Senate Republicans and Democratic leaders are huddled in the White House this weekend looking for a deal on a coronavirus relief package that can pass both the House and Senate as well as being signed by the president.
With the enhanced federal unemployment benefit of $600 a week expiring on Friday, the Republicans now appear willing to extend that benefit for the short term — several weeks at least. The Senate wants to bring an unemployment benefits bill to the floor as early as next week, but Democrats are balking. They want the whole $3 trillion package they passed in the House or nothing.
The $600-per-week jobless benefit officially lapsed on Friday and Democrats have made it 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 unemployment systems are likely to take weeks to restore the benefits.
Principal negotiators — Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) — convened again Saturday in hopes of breaking a weeklong stalemate.
“I’m hoping we’ll make progress and I think we will,” Pelosi said as she entered the Capitol.
Democrats are calculating that Donald Trump is so desperate for a deal that he will eventually be forced to give in to Democratic demands and approve a sizable chunk of that $3 trillion. It includes increasing food stamp aid, monies for state and local governments with virtually no strings attached, and aid for beleaguered renters and homeowners on the verge of being evicted.
It will also include $1200 payments to individuals — another top Trump priority.
An aide familiar with the talks said Pelosi rejected an administration offer of a four-month extension of the benefit at $400 per week, combined with additional provisions for particularly hard-hit businesses and a shield against lawsuits for businesses, schools and other entities that reopen as the pandemic continues to rage.
Republicans in the Senate had been fighting to trim back the $600 jobless benefit, but their resolve weakened as its expiration neared. Trump undercut their position by signaling he wants to keep the full $600 benefit for now.
Those few Republicans hoping to get an aid package on the cheap are going to be disappointed. Not only Democrats, but the president as well are in a spending spree mood. And the more the Republicans resist, the worse it looks to the voter.
Republicans controlling the Senate have kept the relief measure on pause in a strategy aimed at reducing its price tag. But as the pandemic has worsened in past weeks — and as fractures inside the GOP have eroded the party’s negotiating position — Republicans displayed some greater flexibility.
Is there a risk for Democrats to be such obstructionists? It might be if the media wasn’t 100 percent behind them. But painting Republicans as the villains in this debate is simple. It’s easy to frame the issue as Republicans being irresponsible and playing politics with the relief bill. That’s the narrative so far and that’s what it will be moving forward.
It will probably be the middle of the week before the GOP cave is complete. Expect the price tag of the eventual relief bill to be north of $2 trillion.