Democrats, White House signal slight progress on coronavirus aid negotiations

Republicans, Democrats remain at odds on critical issues like extending supplemental unemployment benefits

Democratic leaders and White House officials will resume negotiations on another coronavirus relief package after Monday talks showed "a little bit" of progress between the two sides.

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Both parties are under growing pressure to reach a deal days after the supplemental $600 in unemployment aid lapsed, dealing a major financial blow to the millions of Americans who lost their jobs during the pandemic.

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“We made a little bit of progress,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said after Monday’s two-hour meeting, which included Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows. “The president wants us to get a deal.”

The negotiators are trying to resolve the differences between the $3.5 trillion House-passed HEROES Act and the $1 trillion HEALS Act introduced by Senate Republicans last week.

“It was productive, we’re moving down the track. We still have our differences, we are trying to have a clearer understanding of what the needs are, and the needs are that millions of children in our country are food insecure," Pelosi said. "Millions of people in our country are concerned about being evicted. Tens of millions of people are on unemployment insurance."

After the meeting, Pelosi reportedly told Democratic colleagues on a call that she's hopeful a deal could be reached this week, but is unsure whether it's possible, according to the Associated Press, citing a Democratic aide granted anonymity to discuss the private call.

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Last week, White House negotiators pushed for a short-term proposal to replace lapsed unemployment benefits until lawmakers can cut a broader deal in order to put pressure on Democrats. One proposal from Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., would have temporarily extended the benefits at $200 per week; another, from Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., would have extended the $600 benefits for seven days.

But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell held off on Monday.

“We’re open to a bigger package if we can reach an agreement,” Mnuchin said.

Still, Republicans and Democrats remain at odds on some of the most critical issues, including an extension of the jobless aid, help for renters facing eviction and relief for cash-strapped state and city governments.

Adding to the urgency is the Labor Department's July jobs report, slated to be released Friday. The unemployment figures will shed light on how a fresh round of business closures amid a spike in COVID-19 cases has affected the nation's economy and labor market.

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Republicans have proposed extending, but substantially reducing, the boosted unemployment benefits to $200 per week until states could adopt a more complicated system that would cap the aid at 70 percent of a worker's former salary (something that could take months). They've repeatedly argued the $600 a week disincentivizes unemployed Americans from returning to their jobs.

Democrats maintain the $600-a-week boost needs to be extended through the end of the year and have made it a key sticking point in negotiations; Schumer called the inclusion of the $600-a-week benefits nonnegotiable last week.

About two-thirds of workers on unemployment received more government aid than what they earned at their old job, according to a paper written by economists at the University of Chicago's Becker Friedman Institute.

Most members of the House have left Washington for their August recess and will not return until there is a package to vote on; the Senate is scheduled to leave on Friday, although several members have suggested they may have to postpone the break if a deal is not reached by midweek.

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On Friday, The Washington Post reported the Trump administration is willing to strike a stimulus deal with Democrats that leaves out Senate Republican legislation intended to protect businesses from pandemic-related lawsuits. That puts the White House at odds with McConnell, who has said repeatedly that no relief bill will be passed without it.

President Trump on Wednesday panned the Senate Republicans' package, the HEALS Act, as "semi-irrelevant." He told reporters Wednesday the two parties are "so far apart" on what they think needs to be included in the next round of emergency aid. His priorities for those relief measures, he added, are an extension of the eviction moratorium and supplemental unemployment benefits, both of which are now expired.

“We want to work on the evictions so that people don’t get evicted. We’ll work on the payments for the people,” Trump said last week. “And the rest of it, we’re so far apart, we don’t care. We really don’t care. We want to take care of the people.”

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