White House and congressional negotiators came out of Saturday’s marathon talks sounding more optimistic about progress toward a deal on pandemic relief, but the two sides are still far apart on most of the issues that divide them.
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and White House chief of Staff Mark Meadows are the primary negotiators for the president, who has expressed a desire for a short-term deal that would extend the $600-a-week unemployment benefit and appropriate money for renters facing eviction. But Democrats have refused the piecemeal approach to the bill and want all or nothing.
“We’re not close yet, but it was a productive discussion. Now each side knows where they’re at,” Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters after the meeting.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin added that the meeting, which at more than three hours was the longest yet for negotiators, was the “most productive we’ve had to date.”
The big sticking points that both sides appear to have drawn a line in the sand over are aid to state and local governments and liability protections for business. The president has said that no aid should go to states that were in fiscal trouble even before the coronavirus pandemic hit. As an example, Illinois Democrats sent a letter to their congressional delegation telling them to ask for $40 billion to bail out the state’s pension system, among other things — a system that has become unstable largely as a result of Democrats’ lack of action.
The GOP wants to take the issue of state aid up separately, but Pelosi and Schumer want it folded into the massive relief bill. And Democrats are adamantly rejecting the idea of liability protection for businesses that reopen. The impasse will take days — perhaps weeks — to be overcome, which means the extended unemployment benefit won’t reach those who need it.
Meadows — who had previously told reporters that he was not optimistic about the chances of a deal in the upcoming week — called Saturday the “first day of a good foundation.”
“We’re still a long ways apart, and I don’t want to suggest that a deal is imminent, because it is not. But like with any deal, as you make progress, I think it’s important to recognize you’re making progress,” Meadows said.
There were signs that the Republicans are giving a lot more than Democrats in the talks.
“Today was productive in terms of moving us forward,” said Pelosi, who elbow-bumped with Schumer before they parted ways in the Capitol after the meeting.
Both sides noted that they went through the laundry list of issues that are being discussed in the next package. Staff are expected to have follow-up discussions on Sunday, and then the Congressional Democratic leaders will meet again with Mnuchin and Meadows on Monday.
Actually, Republicans have already surrendered on the big issues of assistance for renters and the unemployed. The only question at this point is how many zeroes the GOP will be able to remove from the final package before it goes to the floor.
There is going to be opposition from some Republicans, and some Democrats will grumble that it doesn’t go far enough. But if Trump signs off on it, Senator McConnell should be able to whip it through the Senate without much trouble.