WASHINGTON ― Senators left town Thursday with nothing to show for days of negotiations between Democrats and Trump administration officials on another round of coronavirus pandemic relief.
“We might not get a deal,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) told reporters on Thursday. “We’re at an impasse right now.”
The Senate is technically still in session and members have been told to be ready to return to the Capitol next week, when they were supposed to begin their August recess, in case there’s a last-minute breakthrough. But at this point, both sides are extremely pessimistic about a deal happening.
A three-hour meeting in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office on Thursday evening yielded no measurable progress, deepening a stalemate with no end in sight.
“We’re very far apart. It’s most unfortunate,” the California Democrat told reporters afterward.
The most pressing disagreement concerns a $600 weekly boost to unemployment insurance, which expired last month amid Republican complaints that jobless workers shouldn’t have so much money. The lapse cut benefits by 50% to 85% for more than 25 million people, with major implications for the broader economy.
Democrats made clear they are holding firm in their demands to continue the benefits as part of a larger relief package, calling renewed Republican objections to more spending amid a historic pandemic cruel and heartless. The two sides remain “trillions” of dollars apart in their proposals, according to the White House.
Republicans, for their part, accused Democrats of being the ones holding hostage aid to millions of struggling Americans in order to exact political victories in November’s elections, even though Republicans criticized the benefits for four months and made no effort to replace them before they lapsed.
“As long as they calculate that they’re better off politically doing nothing, it’s going to be hard for us to move forward,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told reporters on Capitol Hill.
House Democrats passed a massive $3 trillion bill months ago; Senate Republicans haven’t passed or coalesced around a single piece of legislation. Their opening offer, a $1 trillion package they unveiled in July, has been mired in a sea of Republican division. As a result, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has watched from afar while Democrats negotiate with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows.
Meanwhile, the fledgling economic recovery from springtime lockdowns could be devolving into a fresh crisis, as the lapse of extra unemployment benefits threatens to sap consumer spending and spur a surge of eviction notices. As of late July the share of renters making timely payments had already declined 2 percentage points from last year, according to the National Multifamily Housing Council.
“The whole thing is hopeless. We are waiting and they can’t agree on anything and we’re left hanging.”
The extra benefits have spared some people from eviction. Wendy Dean, a single mom in Naples, Florida, saw her weekly payment shrink from nearly a thousand dollars to $275, the maximum state benefit.
She emailed her landlord on Monday to say she couldn’t make this month’s rent, but that she’d applied for help from United Way.
“Please let me know how you make out with United Way,” the landlord replied. “Have you tried Salvation Army as well. Your stimulus check from the gov could help.”
Dean, 48, lost her job as a dental assistant in March. In an email, her boss said ”it was one of the hardest things that I have ever done in my life” but that his hands were tied by the governor’s business shutdown orders. She said he hasn’t asked her to come back.
The stress has been exacerbating her health problems, she said, which include lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. She had a breast cancer scare last year but recently put off diagnostic testing because she can’t afford the copays.
Going out and finding a new job, she said, is “a big risk for us because I’m on so much medication.” The virus has been running wild in Florida.
“The whole thing is hopeless,” Dean said. “We are waiting and they can’t agree on anything and we’re left hanging.”
Asked what his message was to Americans waiting on their added unemployment benefits as senators left town on Thursday, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said, “This is what happens when you have a dysfunctional Senate. We have an opportunity to fix that.”
Party leaders agree on another round of stimulus checks. They even agree that the federal government should resume supplementing state unemployment benefits. The problem is that while Democrats think $600 is the right number, Republicans want to pay people less, but can’t agree how much less.
The two sides are also far apart on aid to state and local governments, which may be forced to lay off public sector employees due to massive budget shortfalls, as well as education funding, food assistance, rental assistance and liability protections for businesses.
“We Democrats believe the patient needs a major operation while Republicans want to apply a Band-Aid,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Thursday.
Trump has threatened to take action unilaterally if Congress can’t reach a deal. On Thursday, he said he was contemplating extending unemployment benefits, lengthening the moratorium on evictions, and suspending the payroll tax via executive order. It’s not clear how he could extend benefits legally, however, since their expiration was a matter of law. Lawmakers suspect the move may be more about positioning himself ahead of the November election.
“I assume he’s contemplating it to send a signal that he’s getting sick and tired that Democrats aren’t negotiating. I doubt if he’s serious about doing it,” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) told reporters on Thursday.