By Doina Chiacu and Valerie Volcovici
Top aides to President Donald Trump on Sunday raised the possibility of the Congress passing piecemeal coronavirus relief legislation – an approach opposed by Democrats – with a deadline looming on the expiration of enhanced unemployment benefits.
A day before Senate Republicans were due to introduce a $1 trillion coronavirus relief bill that includes reduced federal unemployment benefits, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said he believes the party can work quickly with Democrats on getting legislation passed.
Mnuchin and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows floated the idea of Congress passing a bill focusing on items including federal unemployment benefits that expire on Friday, while leaving other issues to be tackled later.
Leaders in the Senate, controlled by Trump’s fellow Republicans, and White House officials were scrambling to hammer out an agreement on their relief proposal, which hit snags after Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced plans to introduce the measure last week.
The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives passed a $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill in May. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in Congress, criticized Republicans for not being able to agree on a plan when Americans are “on the brink” and going hungry.
“They’re in disarray and that delay is causing suffering for America’s families,” Pelosi told CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
Pelosi has been awaiting the Republican proposal so negotiations can begin on a final bill to be passed by Congress.
“So we have been ready for two months and 10 days. I’ve been here all weekend hoping they had something to give us,” Pelosi said.
The most pressing issues are renewing the enhanced unemployment benefits – currently $600 a week – and liability protections from coronavirus-related lawsuits such as “frivolous” litigation against schools and universities, Mnuchin said.
If lawmakers can agree on these two issues, Meadows said, they can debate the rest of the relief bill in the coming weeks.
“Honestly I see us being able to provide unemployment insurance, maybe a retention credit to keep people from being displaced or brought back into the workplace, helping with our schools,” Meadows told ABC’s “This Week.”
“If we can do that along with liability protection, perhaps we put that forward, get that passed – as we can negotiate on the rest of the bill in the weeks to come.”
The coronavirus pandemic has hammered the U.S. economy and triggered large increases in unemployment. Congress is working toward passing the latest in a series of bills in response to the pandemic.
Mnuchin and Meadows made weekend visits to Capitol Hill to meet with Senate Republican leaders. Meadows said he and Mnuchin will return on Sunday and would be “putting the final touches” on the bill.
“Within the trillion-dollar package, there are certain things that have time frames that are bigger priority. So we could look at doing an entire deal. We could also look at doing parts,” Mnuchin said in an interview with “Fox News Sunday.”
Pelosi and top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer on Thursday rejected the idea of passing a temporary extension of expanded unemployment benefits separate from a larger coronavirus relief package, telling reporters they do not want to pass measures piecemeal.
White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said Americans will receive a $1,200 check as part of the new package, along with tax credits for small businesses and restaurants. Kudlow told CNN’s “State of the Union” the package would also extend a federal moratorium of evictions contained in previous relief legislation.
Republicans say they are looking at an extension of unemployment benefits that replace 70% of a person’s wages before they lost their job. Mnuchin said on Saturday Trump’s administration supports extending enhanced unemployment benefits until the end of the year, but at a reduced level.
Democrats prefer a flat amount of enhanced benefits rather than having to figure out 70% of somebody’s wages.
“The reason we had $600 was its simplicity,” Pelosi said.
On liability protections, Pelosi said Democrats will not support a scenario in which workers can be told they are essential but the employer has no responsibility to make the workplace safe for them.
Mnuchin voiced optimism on a deal.
“We can move very quickly with the Democrats on these issues. We’ve moved quickly before, and I see no reason why we can’t move quickly again,” Mnuchin said. “And if there are issues that take longer, we’ll deal with those as well.”