The $1 trillion coronavirus relief package unveiled Monday by the White House and Senate Republicans is being dismissed as a non-starter by Democrats, setting the stage for lengthy negotiations as various federal assistance programs are set to expire.
Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) met for almost two hours with Treasury Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows in the Speaker’s office Monday evening for an initial round of negotiations but made little progress.
Democrats say the GOP legislation falls short of providing enough money for state and local governments, fails to protect renters from eviction and doesn’t invest enough in lower-income communities hit hard by the pandemic.
Congress is also under immense pressure to reach a deal quickly as millions of Americans will see their supplemental federal unemployment assistance benefits expire this week. But the tone from Democrats after Monday’s meeting indicated an agreement is unlikely anytime soon, with Schumer calling the GOP plan “pathetic” and Pelosi saying the package “isn’t serious.”
“We are somewhat frustrated. We had hoped there would be a bill, and instead in the Senate they’ve put little pieces here and there and everywhere. It’s pretty clear they don’t have 51 votes in the Senate for a proposal,” Schumer told reporters Monday night after the meeting.
“We hope they can get their act together. We very much want to get something done for the needs of the people and the needs of the country,” he added.
Pelosi added that the public has waited for months only to get a “piecemeal” set of Republican proposals.
Mnuchin and Meadows were tight-lipped as they left Pelosi’s office in the Capitol on Monday evening.
“We had a good meeting. We’ll be back tomorrow,” Meadows told reporters.
White House officials spent most of last week negotiating with Senate Republicans to reach a unified position before beginning talks this week with Democrats.
The hard line taken by Democratic leaders on Monday reflects their feeling of strength heading into the talks, as President Trump’s job approval rating hovers around 40 percent and his approval rating for responding to the coronavirus pandemic dips even lower.
Democrats said privately that they feel they have leverage over Republicans and that the coronavirus relief will have to be written largely on Democratic terms.
“They know this can’t get passed and they have a president and a country that needs a bill, so eventually they’re going to have to negotiate with Democrats in earnest,” said a Democratic senator who requested anonymity to comment on the view many Democratic senators share that Trump is in a weak negotiating position.
“We should write this bill mostly on our terms,” the lawmaker added.
But Republicans predict Schumer and Pelosi will have to give ground as well, noting the numerous legislative items not related to the pandemic that were included in the $3 trillion Heroes Act the House passed in May.
Both sides at the negotiating table realize this bill may be the last major piece of coronavirus relief legislation to pass Congress before the election, meaning it could play a key role in whether Trump wins reelection or whether Democrats can capture the Senate majority.
Democrats are zeroing in on GOP efforts to drastically cut federal unemployment assistance from $600 a week to $200 a week, which would supplement state unemployment benefits.
Under the Republican plan, unemployed workers would receive $200 a week in federal assistance on top of their state unemployment insurance assistance for two months. After that, laid off workers would receive supplemental weekly federal benefits that combined with state unemployment benefits would equal about 70 percent of their previous paychecks.
Schumer called the Republican proposal reducing federal unemployment assistance “fraught with all kinds of problems.”
The House-passed Heroes Act would extend the $600-a-week federal plus-up to state unemployment benefits through January.
Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, warned the GOP proposal would weigh down an economy that’s already in recession.
“This plan would also be devastating to the broader economy. A new report from the Economic Policy Institute says that cutting the federal boost from $600 to $200 would cost the economy 3.4 million jobs,” he said in a statement earlier Monday.
Schumer said the GOP plan also fails to address housing needs.
“Not only do they have no rental assistance for people who need help but they didn’t even put, evidently, a moratorium [on evictions], so hundreds of thousands of people could be kicked out of their houses next week,” Schumer said.
Pelosi criticized the GOP proposal for including a provision to allow the expensing of business lunches while leaving out an increase in funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that Democrats have been calling for since March.
“They have something in there like a tax credit for expensive dinners and lunches but no money for food stamps or nutrition assistance,” she said. “Right now we’re at a time when children are food insecure in our country. People are hungry who never thought they’d go to a food bank.”
“If they’re not even getting to the fundamentals of food and rent and economic survival, they’re not really ready to have a serious negotiation,” she added.
Another sticking point for Democrats is a provision that would provide $1.75 billion for rebuilding the FBI headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue near to the Trump International Hotel.
Democratic leaders suspect Trump wants to rebuild the FBI’s existing headquarters so that the aging building doesn’t get torn down and allow for a competitor to snatch up prime real estate so close to Trump’s business.
“They don’t have money for food stamps but they have money for an FBI building just so that they can diminish competition for the president’s hotel,” Pelosi said.
Democrats are also lining up against a Republican proposal to shield businesses from COVID-19-related liability protection for businesses, schools and other organizations, something Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) insists must be part of the legislation.
Schumer said the $105 billion for schools included in the White House-Senate Republican won’t be enough to allow for the safe reopening of schools in the fall.
The GOP proposal doesn’t include any new money for state and local governments, which Democrats have long identified as a top priority.