Coronavirus talks in Congress face timeline as Trump ponders his own action
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Congressional Democratic leaders and White House officials were set to resume negotiations on coronavirus relief legislation on Wednesday, with the administration officials aiming for an agreement by Friday.
After more than a week of talks and few signs of progress, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer were said to be aiming for a deal that could be passed by Congress next week.
"Obviously, we're up against a deadline now. But as you know from experience around here, that's about the only way," Senator John Thune, the chamber's No. 2 Republican, told reporters.
Indeed, negotiators have already blown past one deadline: last Friday, when enhanced unemployment payments of $600 a week expired for the tens of millions of Americans who have lost their jobs in the pandemic.
Mnuchin said late on Tuesday that the two sides were trying to reach an overall agreement by the end of this week.
But Pelosi said on Wednesday that the timeline would depend on the course of the negotiations.
"The timetable really relates to the progress we make. How big will the bill be and how long will it last? Those are the questions," the Democratic congresswoman told MSNBC.
In the meantime, Republican President Donald Trump said he was still considering unilateral action to stimulate the economy by allowing taxpayers to defer payroll tax payments.
"Well, I may do it myself," he said in an interview with Fox News. "I have the right to suspend it, and I may do it myself - I have the absolute right to suspend the payroll."
An earlier Trump demand for a payroll tax cut gained no traction among lawmakers of either party in Congress.
Trump's newly installed Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy, was also due to provide Democrats with a briefing, amid worries about delays in Postal Service deliveries and the potential impact on the Nov. 3 elections, which could see record numbers of mail-in ballots as many voters fear casting votes in person could expose them to the coronavirus.
"We must resolve those in a way that allows mail to be delivered on time for the election and for the necessities that people need," Schumer said on the Senate floor.
To illustrate the scale of mail-in voting expected, a Monmouth University poll found that 40% of Iowa voters are very likely to vote by mail in the general election, while another 17% are somewhat likely to do so.
Despite some progress in coronavirus legislation talks, both sides remain far apart on a range of issues.
Mnuchin warned that the Trump administration would not accept "anything close" to the $3.4 trillion in new aid that Democrats were seeking. But he offered to extend through the end of the year an expired moratorium on evictions of people unable to pay their rent.
Schumer accused Republicans of failing to grasp the severity of the pandemic, which has killed more than 157,000 people in the United States.
"There must be a relief package commensurate with the size of this historic challenge," the New York Democrat said.
Senate Majority Mitch McConnell, the chamber's top Republican, who has not joined the negotiations, blamed Schumer and Pelosi for the lack of a deal: "Democratic leaders have moved about one inch, one inch in eight days."
In May, the Democratic-controlled House passed a $3 trillion aid bill that included around $1 trillion to help state and local governments that have revenue shortfalls because of the huge slowdown in economic activity related to the pandemic.
McConnell has offered a $1 trillion proposal that would significantly reduce an "enhanced" jobless benefit that expired on Friday.
Both sides say they support another round of direct payments to further help stimulate the economy and keep people afloat amid massive unemployment.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle, Susan Cornwell and Richard Cowan, Writing by David Morgan; Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)
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