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White House, Democrats agree to try for coronavirus relief deal on evictions, unemployment by week’s end

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 8/5/2020 Seung Min Kim, Erica Werner, Carol D. Leonnig, Jeff Stein
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The White House and Democratic leaders agreed to try to finalize a deal to address lapsed unemployment benefits and eviction restrictions by the end of this week and hold a vote in Congress next week, suddenly trying to rush stalled talks in the face of growing public and political unrest.

Senior White House officials said Tuesday that they made “very concrete offers” to Democrats related to unemployment benefits and eviction protections, and after days of bickering, both sides now appear to be trying to secure a compromise.

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The agreement on a timeline came in a meeting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows.

The four have been meeting almost daily for a week. Their agreement Tuesday on a specific timeline to reach an overall deal constituted the most concrete progress yet. It suggests that the White House has backed off efforts to pass a stand-alone extension of unemployment benefits — and will also stand down, at least for now, on more recent threats to act unilaterally through executive orders if no deal can be reached with Congress.

“I may not have to sign [executive orders]. Progress is being made,” President Trump told reporters at the White House.

Pelosi and Schumer also pointed to signs of progress in earlier comments to reporters.

“We agree that we want to have an agreement,” Pelosi said, adding: “This takes time, and it takes specificity.”

For example, even though Mnuchin offered an eviction moratorium until the end of the year, the White House offer did not include other homeowner and rental assistance that Democrats have demanded, so the housing portion of the talks remains unresolved, a Democratic aide said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe the talks.

Steven Mnuchin, Mark Meadows are posing for a picture: FILE PHOTO: U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, left, and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows speak to reporters in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S. July 29, 2020. REUTERS/Erin Scott/File Photo © Erin Scott/Reuters FILE PHOTO: U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, left, and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows speak to reporters in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S. July 29, 2020. REUTERS/Erin Scott/File Photo

The four will meet again Wednesday.

The talks came as Senate Republicans on Tuesday began to emphasize that they will need to stay in Washington until a fresh round of pandemic relief aid is enacted, worried about facing the wrath of voters if they go home without one as deaths from the novel coronavirus are rising and the economic recovery has stalled.

About 30 million jobless Americans lost $600-a-week enhanced unemployment benefits on Friday, and a moratorium on rental evictions also recently expired.

The Senate had been scheduled to adjourn for its August recess starting next week, but that is not looking feasible.

Trump has maintained that he could act unilaterally on virus relief if no deal is reached, claiming he has the power to step in and address the eviction issue, among other things — although it’s not clear how that would work.

The White House and lawmakers are struggling to close the significant divide that remains between the Democrats’ starting, $3.4 trillion offer, and a $1 trillion GOP package that did not have unified support of the Senate Republican Conference.

Pelosi has not publicly backed down from her support for the Democrats’ bill, but Mnuchin scoffed at the idea that Republicans would be adopting that proposal.

“We’re not doing anything close to $3.4 trillion. That’s just ridiculous,” Mnuchin said.

“We really went down issue by issue by issue, slogging through,” Schumer said. “They made some concessions which we appreciated; we made some concessions which they appreciated. We’re still far away on a lot of the important issues, but we’re continuing.”

It was unclear what concessions had been made on either side, and Meadows contended that the concessions made by the administration were “far more substantial” than those the Democrats offered.

Schumer also said the Democrats had requested a meeting with the postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, for Wednesday to discuss delays in delivering mail.

Earlier, at a lunch with Senate Republicans, Meadows and Mnuchin said that Trump was prepared to enact some sort of executive order on pandemic relief, and no senators raised any objections to that plan, according to people briefed on the meeting.

White House officials eager to break the logjam had stepped up their talk in recent days of Trump acting unilaterally on key administration priorities, including the expiration of unemployment benefits and a moratorium on evictions.

Meadows has eyed taking money already approved by Congress and redirecting it for federal unemployment benefits, according to three people aware of internal administration deliberations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private matter. The White House Counsel’s Office is assisting Meadows in the review of the legality of the repurposing of some of these funds, two of the people said. The president has said publicly that he is exploring the matter.

But the strategy faced significant hurdles, legal and otherwise, and some people in close communication with the White House said the idea was being studied largely to give the president greater leverage in the negotiations with Democrats.

The talks picked up urgency as GOP senators acknowledged the problematic issue of returning to their home states without relief for their beleaguered constituents. 

“How do you think it looks for us to be back home when this is unresolved?” said Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), who is running for reelection in November. “This is the most important thing we need to be doing.”

“Real people are sitting back home and wondering why all the Kabuki games, why can’t we just do it?” said Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.).

Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), a member of the party leadership who help draft provisions related to education and health funding in the Senate Republican proposal, said there are multiple areas of agreement with Democrats where negotiations could bear fruit.

“I think on testing, we’re close. On schools, in reality, we would be close if they wanted to be close. On child care. Hopefully on vaccine,” Blunt said. 

He added that there were some issues — such as aid to state and local governments — where the parties remain far apart.

Republicans acknowledged their own divisions.

“I think I’ve made it very clear for some time now if you’re looking for a total consensus among Republicans you’re not going to find it, because we do have divisions about what to do,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters.

He said it was unlikely that the bill would pass Congress with broad support, as earlier virus relief did.

“It’s not going to produce a ‘Kumbaya’ moment like we had in March or April where everybody voted aye, but the American people in the end need help,” McConnell said. “And wherever this thing settles between the president of the United States and his team who have to sign it into law, and the Democrats’ not insignificant minority in the Senate and majority in the House, is something I’m prepared to support, even if I have some problems with certain parts of it.”

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