CORONAVIRUS

Democrats Say They Lowered Demands But Coronavirus Relief Deal Still Not Looking Good

The White House rejected an offer from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and the two sides remain far apart.

WASHINGTON ― Democrats and Republicans are accusing each other of being unwilling to compromise on another economic stimulus package, as negotiations on federal unemployment benefits are becoming increasingly hopeless.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the White House rejected her offer for a relief package totaling about $2.5 trillion ― $1 trillion less than legislation House Democrats passed in May, but about $1.5 trillion more than Senate Republicans proposed last month.

“They said absolutely not,” Pelosi told reporters Friday. “If we could do that, if we take down $1 trillion and they add $1 trillion, we’ll be within range.”

Friday’s report that the economy added more than 1 million jobs last month might complicate the negotiations, as President Donald Trump uses those numbers to declare economic victory over the coronavirus. The pace of job growth has slowed considerably, however, and the unemployment rate remains above 10%. 

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) pinned the blame for the impasse on Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows. He said Meadows was less flexible than the other administration negotiator, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. Democrats cut a deal with Mnuchin in March, when Congress passed its $3 trillion CARES Act with nearly unanimous support.

“Basically what’s happening is Mr. Meadows is from the Tea Party ... and they don’t want to spend the necessary money,” Schumer said of the former Republican congressman, who chaired the hard-right House Freedom Caucus until 2019.

While Democrats suggested that the problem was Republican unwillingness to negotiate, Republicans said the same of Democrats. 

“Pelosi and Schumer never wanted a deal,” a senior GOP aide told HuffPost on Friday. “It always $3.4 trillion or nothing. Those two have been around long enough to know that’s not how you make a compromise. It just doesn’t add up.”

Another senior GOP aide had a similar message, saying the intransigence was a “craven political calculation that will leave Americans in the lurch.”

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) participates in a news conference on Friday. She -- along with Treasury Secretar
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) participates in a news conference on Friday. She -- along with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows -- are trying to negotiate an agreement to move forward on a new relief package to help people and businesses weather the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Democrats have moved. 

Despite a week of Democrats seeming to hold the line on the $3.5 trillion bill the House passed in May, the decision to shave $1 trillion off their wishlist is a significant step toward a final resolution — at least, they say they’ve shaved $1 trillion off their bill.

Pelosi explained that one way Democrats have reduced the cost of their bill is to adjust the dates of their programs. That may only technically reduce the cost of the bill, if the expectation is that they’ll extend the dates in the future anyway.

Still, Democrats finding a way to shrink the cost of their bill is a step forward. 

Unfortunately, a deal now would be little solace for the more than 25 million who were receiving an extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits until last week. Even if Congress moved fast, it could take some states weeks to restart the federal payments.

Until that $600 expired, Scott Abrams of Irvine, California, received more in unemployment than he did from his job. He’d earned $14 an hour doing sales for a tax settlement firm. His $288 state benefit, combined with the federal supplement, was the equivalent of a $22 hourly wage. 

The boosted benefits exceeded wages for a significant number of unemployment recipients, if not most of them. Republicans have opposed the benefits from the start, since laid-off workers would theoretically be less inclined to return to their jobs. 

Abrams, 59, said the problem isn’t that his unemployment was too high; it’s that his wages were too low. 

“I couldn’t afford the job I was in,” he said. “I think people should be having a living wage.”

Now that his benefits have shriveled, he thinks that he and his wife should be able to make rent, but things will be tight. He has health conditions that put him at higher risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19, so he’s trying to find jobs that will let him work remotely, or at least safely. 

“I’m about to hit retirement age and I’m in some serious deep trouble,” he said.

If Congress doesn’t act, and it increasingly looks like it won’t, Trump has signaled he will act administratively to renew benefits in some form — perhaps as soon as Friday. It’s not clear whether his executive actions would survive legal scrutiny, as the expiration date for the jobless pay had been written into law. But it may provide temporary relief for the millions of unemployed people whose weekly pay was suddenly cut by $600.