WASHINGTON — The White House and its GOP allies appear to be retreating from their opposition to a $600 per week supplemental unemployment benefit that has propped up both the economy and family budgets but is expiring Friday.
President Donald Trump is plainly eager to extend the benefit, undercutting his GOP allies on Capitol Hill who have spent considerable effort on devising an alternative to it that could unite Republicans.
The unemployment insurance is a principle element as talks continue on a COVID-19 relief bill, which is expected to grow considerably from a $1 trillion-plus GOP draft released this week. The negotiations are continuing Friday after late-night talks at the Capitol failed to produce a breakthrough.
The two sides took their case to the media Friday morning, with White House chief of staff Mark Meadows appearing before reporters on short notice at the exact moment House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appeared at her weekly news conference.
Meadows accused Democrats of refusing to negotiate, saying Trump has instructed him to be "aggressive and forward-leaning" in trying to extend the supplemental jobless benefit.
"Democrats have made zero offers over the last three days," said Meadows, an inexperienced negotiator and former tea party lawmaker. He said Democrats are "willing to play politics" and are acting like they "hold all the cards."
The White House on Thursday offered a one-week extension of the $600 weekly unemployment benefit, top Democrats said, but Pelosi rejected it, saying it needs to be addressed as part of a far more sweeping bill that would deliver aid to state and local governments, help for the poor and funding for schools and colleges to address the pandemic. Without action, the unemployment benefit runs out Friday — and both the House and Senate have exited Washington.
"Clearly they did not understand the gravity of the situation," Pelosi said. She said a short-term extension only makes sense if the two sides are close to a deal.
"Why don't we just get the job done," she said.
An aide familiar with the talks said Pelosi rejected an administration offer of a four-month extension of the benefit at $400 per week, combined with additional provisions for particularly hard-hit businesses and a shield against lawsuits for businesses, schools and other entities that reopen as the pandemic continues to rage.
Pelosi, brimming with confidence, offered a tutorial on negotiating on Friday.
"There are two things to remember. One is the person you're negotiating with has to want something" for the American people, Pelosi said. "And they have to know you will walk" if you don't get a good enough agreement.
Republicans in the Senate had been fighting to trim back the $600 jobless benefit in the next coronavirus package, but their resolve weakened as the expiration of the popular benefit drew near — and as Trump undercut their position by signaling he wants to keep the full $600 benefit for now.
"We want a temporary extension of enhanced unemployment benefits," Trump said at the White House on Thursday. "This will provide a critical bridge for Americans who lost their jobs to the pandemic through no fault of their own."
The sides agreed to talk again Friday and into the weekend. There continues to be agreement among Washington's top power players that Congress must pass further relief in the coming days and weeks.
"Do we want to continue to come to an agreement? Absolutely," said top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer. "But it's got to meet the gravity of the problem."
Trump is eager for another round of COVID relief, and it's also a priority for GOP allies like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, as well as Pelosi and Schumer. Democrats hold a strong negotiating hand — exploiting GOP divisions over whether more aid is even needed — and they are expected to deliver a necessary trove of votes.
Both sides say the talks have not produced much progress but they could be nearing a critical phase over the weekend and into next week. The pending COVID rescue bill, the fifth since the pandemic has struck, is likely the last one before the November election.
Republicans controlling the Senate have kept the relief measure on "pause" in a strategy that aimed at reducing its price tag. But as the pandemic has worsened in past weeks — and as fractures inside the GOP have eroded the party's negotiating position — Republicans have displayed some greater flexibility.
"The Democrats are playing for Nov. 3, and we're playing for the good of the people. It is a disgrace that they are not negotiating," Trump said Friday. "I think it's a bad political game. I think it hurts them."
Also at issue in the negotiations is an almost $1 trillion Democratic demand for funding for state and local governments, a second $1,200 direct payment to most American adults, more than $100 billion to help schools reopen, and a liability shield measure that is essential to McConnell.
Meadows played a role in killing an increase in food aid during talks on a $2 trillion relief bill in March, but Democrats are pressing hard for a boost to food stamp benefits. Republicans added $20 billion for agribusinesses but nothing for greater food stamp benefits.
"Traditionally we've had a partnership between farms and families and they've consistently broken that," said top Senate Agriculture Committee Democrat Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.
“And so I’m not going to even talk to them about (farm subsidies) until we know we’ve got a (food stamp) increase. We’re just not going to do it. We’re just not going to do one more round of ignoring the hardships and the hunger of millions of families.”