Split over $600 un­em­ploy­ment aid ben­e­fit nar­rows

Baltimore Sun - - MARYLAND - By An­drew Tay­lor and Lisa Mas­caro

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 the econ­omy and fam­ily bud­gets but was set to ex­pire Fri­day.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump is ea­ger to ex­tend the ben­e­fit, un­der­cut­ting his GOP al­lies on Capi­tol Hill who have spent con­sid­er­able ef­fort de­vis­ing an al­ter­na­tive that could unite Repub­li­cans.

The un­em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance is a prin­ci­pal 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.

Top Democrats an­nounced a meet­ing with ad­min­is­tra­tion rep­re­sen­ta­tives for Satur­day morn­ing af­ter Thurs­day 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 speak­ing to 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 evening 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 was set to run out Fri­day — and both the House and Se­nate have left 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 asked.

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. The aide wasn’t sup­posed to di­vulge con­tents of the talks and spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity.

Pelosi, brim­ming with con­fi­dence, of­fered a tu­to­rial on ne­go­ti­at­ing 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

“We want a tem­po­rary ex­ten­sion of en­hanced un­em­ploy­ment ben­e­fits. This will pro­vide a crit­i­cal bridge for Amer­i­cans who lost their jobs to the pan­demic through no fault of their own.”

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 neared — 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.”

On Fri­day, Trump took to Twit­ter to ex­plic­itly en­dorse ex­tend­ing the $600 pay­ment and crit­i­ciz­ing top Se­nate Demo­crat Chuck Schumer.

“Very dis­ap­pointed in @SenSchumer for block­ing the tem­po­rary ex­ten­sion of the $600 un­em­ploy­ment ben­e­fits. The Do

Noth­ing Democrats are more in­ter­ested in play­ing pol­i­tics than in help­ing our de­serv­ing peo­ple,” Trump tweeted.

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,” Schumer said. “But it’s got to meet the grav­ity of the prob­lem.”

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-19 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 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 im­por­tant to Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell, R-Ky.

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 in 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 Sen. Deb­bie Stabenow of Michi­gan, the top Demo­crat on the Se­nate Agri­cul­ture Com­mit­tee.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump

ALEX BRAN­DON/AP

White House chief of staff Mark Mead­ows briefs re­porters about a pos­si­ble aid pack­age to ad­dress the coron­avirus cri­sis.

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