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Congress nowhere near deal; unemployment benefit to expire

Senate Republicans and Democrats traded blows for yet another day and then left town as a federal enhancement of unemployment benefits that has been utilized...

Posted: Jul 30, 2020 11:46 AM
Updated: Jul 30, 2020 8:45 PM

Senate Republicans and Democrats traded blows for yet another day and then left town as a federal enhancement of unemployment benefits that has been utilized by millions was all but certain to expire.

'If you are a person deciding today what bill to pay, I wouldn't trust us,' Sen. Kevin Cramer, a Republican from North Dakota, said of the partisan fight that had captured the hill Thursday.

While bipartisan talks continued into the evening between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, the reality is after two weeks in session, lawmakers are no closer to a deal.

Instead, a deeply divided Senate voted along party lines Thursday to take up a legislative vehicle that could be used in the future to pass a jobless benefit extension or broader bill if the Senate eventually reaches a deal. ‬

In remarks on the Senate floor earlier Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer took turns lambasting the other side for the inaction before the looming deadline, ramping up the rhetorical heat to negotiations that have for days been cold as ice.

'This is quite the partnership,' McConnell said mockingly of Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the lead Democratic negotiator. 'The House Speaker moves the goalposts while the Democratic Leader hides the football.'

Schumer, shortly after, responded on the Senate floor with his own broadside.

'Because Senate Republicans couldn't get their act together, two weeks now have gone down the drain, and three months before that, because the Republicans are wedded to a twisted ideology that the federal government shouldn't help people, even in a time of national emergency,' Schumer said.

Republicans and Democrats both pressed on the Senate floor for the passage of separate proposals -- Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, put forward an extension of the federal unemployment enhancement at a rate of $200 or 66% of past earnings, Schumer countered with the proposal passed by House Democrats in May.

It was a procedural effort each side knew would fail -- and did.

Sen. John Thune, the second-ranking Republican, said they would try again and force a vote on Johnson's proposal next week. Republicans hope by forcing roll call votes on Johnson's measure -- and other proposals that have not been unveiled --- they can peel off some rank and file Democrats anxious to find a way out of the impasse even if top Democratic leaders are pushing for a broader deal.

'We need to get things moving,' Thune said. 'Our guys want to vote they want to be able to prove they're moving the ball down the field and the Democrats want to keep blocking. This exposes that. And hopefully it will get them to get serious about actually sitting down and working on a solution.'

The failed efforts on the floor and caustic remarks served as just the latest example of a negotiation that hasn't so much as gone off the rails as it was never on them to begin with. Senate Republicans, after days of delay, introduced their own series of proposals Monday, only to have many in the conference object to some, or all, of them. Also in that boat: President Donald Trump, who said he had problems with parts of the GOP plan, but added that it was 'sort of semi-irrelevant,' given Democrats needed to agree to any final deal.

Democrats have hewed closely to the $3 trillion proposal the House passed in May, holding firm on extending the $600 flat rate federal enhancement of unemployment benefits -- despite significant GOP objections -- as well as the nearly $1 trillion the bill put in place for states and localities.

'It's slow,' Thune told CNN. 'They are dug in. Right now I think they just want the issue.'

Pelosi and Schumer flatly rejected the idea of a short-term, narrow package floated by the White House, making clear that a comprehensive package was the only path forward on their side.

'While the nation waits, desperate for comprehensive relief, they leave everything else out,' Schumer said.

The White House negotiating team, comprised of Mnuchin and Meadows, have grown increasingly pessimistic after three days of closed-door meetings with their Democratic counterparts.

Meadows, asked by CNN what might unlock the current stalemate, said flatly: 'I don't know that anything does.'

Negotiations between Meadows, Mnuchin, Pelosi and Schumer concluded Thursday night and the two sides remained far apart on a deal.

Mnuchin told reporters after the meeting that negotiators had 'made progress' on certain issues but remain at odds on others. He said the administration will continue to talk with Democrats 'for as long as it takes' to reach an agreement.

Meadows, meanwhile, said the Democratic leaders didn't receive their proposals 'warmly.'

Pelosi and Schumer confirmed that description, telling reporters the administration doesn't understand the scope of the action that is needed in the next stimulus bill or the gravity of the situation.

'Right now they don't get how serious the problem is,' Schumer said. 'Did we have a good discussion? Yes. Will we continue to discuss? Yes. Do we want to continue to come to an agreement? Absolutely. But it's got to meet the gravity of the problem.'

Congressional leaders in both parties continue to say a deal is necessary, and the economic numbers released Thursday appeared to bolster that point.

The US economy contracted at a record 32.9% annual rate last quarter and weekly jobless claims rose to 1.43 million amid signs of a slowing recovery.

McConnell called for the top Republicans and Democrats on each committee to start negotiations, a structure that was utilized during the negotiations over the first major emergency economic relief package.

'Republicans have put forward a framework that would do huge amounts of good for huge numbers of American families,' McConnell said. 'If Democrats ever come to the table, we'll be able to bridge our differences and make a law.'

Schumer, who chastised McConnell for staying out of the bipartisan in-person talks up to this point, called for Republicans to grasp the severity of the moment.

'We just need our Republican colleagues to get their act together, roll up their sleeves, understand the gravity and depth and breadth of this problem, and negotiate with us in a serious way,' the New York Democrat said.

This story has been updated with additional developments Thursday.

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