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Top Senate Democrat says COVID-19 relief talks ‘moving in the right direction’

FILE PHOTO: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, joined by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, speaks about efforts to pass new coronavirus aid legislation during her weekly news conference with Capitol Hill reporters at the Capitol, in Washington, U.S. July 23, 2020. (REUTERS/Erin Scott)

BY PATRICIA ZENGERLE

Negotiations between congressional Democrats and the White House on a new round of coronavirus relief have begun to move in the right direction, though the two sides remain far apart, the U.S. Senate’s top Democrat said on Tuesday.

After a week of almost daily negotiations, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said that he, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows have moved closer in several areas.

“We remain far apart on a number of issues. But we’re finally moving in the right direction,” Schumer said on the Senate floor. “At the moment, the gap between our two parties in the negotiations is about priorities and about scale.”

As the four negotiators planned to meet again at 3:30 p.m. EDT (1930 GMT) in the Capitol, differences remained on key issues, including unemployment benefits for workers made jobless by the epidemic, as well as liability protections for businesses and funding for schools, state and local governments and election security.

Mnuchin and Meadows were expected to meet first with Senate Republicans at a midday policy lunch.

Schumer blamed the lack of an agreement on Republican unwillingness to accept that the United States needs a robust response from Congress to meet the mounting health and economic challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 155,000 Americans.

Federal Reserve officials are urging Congress and the White House to help the struggling U.S. economy. Tens of millions of Americans have lost their jobs during the crisis.

Congress passed more than $3 trillion in relief legislation early in the pandemic. But lawmakers missed a deadline last week to extend the $600 per week in enhanced unemployment payments that have played a key role in propping up the economy.

Democrats are pressing for another $3 trillion that would retain the $600 benefit and add nearly $1 trillion in assistance for state and local governments.

Senate Republicans, who have not taken part in the White House talks with Democrats, have proposed a $1 trillion package that would slash the unemployment payment to $200 a week and eventually move to 70% of wages.

Republicans say the $600 benefit – which is on top of state unemployment payments – discourages people from taking lower-paying jobs. A Fed official on Monday said there was little evidence to support that view.

Differences also remain on whether to extend a moratorium on housing evictions.

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