WASHINGTON (Reuters) – White House officials and top congressional Democrats on Tuesday discussed a next round of coronavirus relief that would include extended unemployment insurance for Americans thrown out of work during the pandemic and more money for schools.
Republicans and Democrats also said they expected the final bill they reached to include more funding for testing, despite earlier resistance to the idea from President Donald Trump’s administration.
After separate meetings with White House and Treasury officials, Republican and Democratic lawmakers remained far apart on how much money to spend overall and there was debate over whether to accept Trump’s demands for a payroll tax cut.
With more than 3.8 million coronavirus cases and over 141,00 deaths in the United States [nL2N2ES11L], the Republican-led Senate, Democratic-controlled House of Representatives and the White House have less than two weeks to agree on a legislative package before assistance runs out for tens of millions of Americans made jobless by the coronavirus pandemic.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows met House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer in the Capitol to discuss White House priorities for legislation. Meadows and Mnuchin had met earlier with Senate Republicans.
Asked if a deal could be worked out by the end of the week, Pelosi replied with a laugh: “The end of the week? You mean the month. I’m hoping for the end of the month.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Republicans would soon unveil a new coronavirus bill that is expected to have a $1 trillion price tag.
He said it would include $105 billion for schools; assistance for small businesses; direct payments to individuals and families; help for businesses to meet the cost of protecting employees and customers; money for vaccines, diagnostics and treatments; and liability protection for businesses, healthcare facilities, churches, charities and government agencies.
Democrats are proposing $175 billion to help elementary and secondary schools cope with the pandemic and have said they are determined to fight for provisions in a $3 trillion bill that passed the House in May and includes aid to state and local governments, extended unemployment insurance for displaced workers and protections for workers.
There are also disagreements within the Republican ranks over what new legislation should contain.
‘TIME TICKING AWAY’
“I’m going to introduce a bill in the next few days that is a starting place, that enjoys fairly significant support among Republican senators – probably not everyone,” McConnell said at a news conference.
But Schumer called on Senate Republicans to open bipartisan negotiations with House and Senate Democrats now, saying that pursuing partisan legislation first would waste precious time.
“It only delays action. Worse, with time ticking away, Republicans can’t even get their own act together,” Schumer told reporters.
The White House had threatened to upstage the negotiations by pressing for the elimination of billions of dollars for testing. But in an apparent reversal, Mnuchin told reporters that the administration wanted “to make sure there’s plenty of money for testing. And that’s a big priority.”
Trump has also called for a payroll tax cut to be included in legislation, a provision Meadows described on Tuesday as “a very high priority.”
But the White House proposal has run into trouble with Democrats who say there is little enthusiasm for such a move and with Republicans as well.
“There are some differences of opinion on the question of the payroll tax cut and whether that’s the best way to go,” McConnell said.
Trump wants the payroll tax cut ahead of the November election and sees it as a major stimulus for the pandemic-stricken U.S. economy, according to the White House. Democrats have said such a move is unnecessary and could threaten Social Security benefits for the elderly.
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