WASHINGTON - A day of shuttle diplomacy on Capitol Hill over a coronavirus aid package produced few results Tuesday, with stark differences between the $3 trillion proposal from Democrats and $1 trillion counteroffer from Republicans as millions of Americans’ jobless benefits, school reopenings and eviction protections hang in the balance.
As top White House negotiators returned for a second day of talks, the leverage is apparent. They are meeting again in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office. Republicans are so deeply divided over the prospect of big government spending that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is left with a severely weakened hand.
President Donald Trump said the Republican effort is “semi-irrelevant” as talks launch with Democrats.
“We want to do what’s best for the people,” Trump said at the White House.
Striking any agreement with Congress by Friday’s deadline for expiring aid will be daunting. But the outcome will be a defining one for the president and the parties heading into the November election as an uneasy nation is watching and waiting for Washington to bring some end to the health crisis and devastating economic fallout.
“We cannot afford to fail,” Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said.
Key to the debate is the $600 weekly unemployment benefit bump that is expiring for millions of jobless Americans. Republicans want to slash it to $200 a week as an incentive to push people back to work. Democrats have shown flickers of willingness to curb the federal aid but held firm in first-round talks.
Wider disputes will punctuate the discussions over money for cash-strapped states and cities, schools to prepare for fall, virus testing and billions of dollars to shore up American households and small businesses facing potential ruin as the virus rages and stay-home orders resume.
With the virus death toll climbing and 4.2 million infections nationwide, both parties are eager for relief.
But McConnell acknowledged the limits with Republicans split: “We’ve done the best we can.”
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows spent hours going back-and-forth between the leaders’ offices at the Capitol.
McConnell set the tone by insisting that he would accept no package without a liability shield against COVID-19 lawsuits, his top priority from the start.
But he’s coming to the negotiating table with half the GOP senators expected to oppose any virus relief deal, and the Democrats swiftly rebuffed his demand, telling the White House negotiators to ask if he was serious.
Pelosi called it “liability on steroids” — a sweeping ban on injury lawsuits — and she said McConnell ”sounded like a person who had no interest in having an agreement.”
Mnuchin and Meadows also heard an earful during a private GOP lunch.
Several senators vigorously questioned Mnuchin, Meadows and McConnell and warned against caving to liberal demands, said two Republicans who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the closed-door meeting. Senators predicted the price tag will balloon past $1 trillion.
“It’s a mess,” said Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo. “I don’t know what we’re trying to accomplish.”
By day’s end, Meadows acknowledged that talks are not “getting closer.” The White House officials plan to return Wednesday.
The two bills are widely seen as starting points in talks.
Republicans seek $16 billion for virus testing; Democrats want $75 billion.
For school reopenings, Democrats want four times the $105 billion that Republicans propose.
Democrats want to extend a federal eviction moratorium on millions of rental units that is expiring Friday, but Republicans are silent on evictions.
While McConnell insisted on the liability shield, Democrats want tougher federal workplace safety oversight.
One major sticking point will be over funding for states and cities. Democrats proposed nearly $1 trillion to avert municipal layoffs, but Republicans prefer providing them with flexibility in previously approved aid.
An area of common ground is agreement on a new round of $1,200 direct payments to Americans earning $75,000 or less.
But Democrats also add a “heroes’ pay” bonus for front-line workers, money for food stamps and other assistance.
Conservative Republicans quickly broke ranks, arguing the spending was too much and priorities misplaced.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said McConnell would be lucky to get half the Republicans on board.
“We’re in a war, OK, with the virus,” Graham said at the Capitol. “If you don’t think we need money for hospitals and doctors, you’re not looking at the same movie I’m looking at.”
As Republicans tried to justify the White House’s request for $1.7 billion to replace the FBI headquarters in downtown Washington, McConnell said he opposed the provision. The building is across the street from the Trump International Hotel.
As bipartisan talks unfold, the White House has suggested a narrower relief package may be all that’s possible. Democrats have dismissed that as too meager. And Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said, “I haven’t heard any support for that.”
The $600 weekly jobless benefits boost, approved as part of the March aid package, officially expires Friday, but because of the way states process unemployment payments, the cutoff has effectively begun.
Economists widely see signs of trouble in the economy as the virus crisis continues.