White House and Congress Remain Far From Any Stimulus Deal

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WASHINGTON — Top Democrats and White House officials on Wednesday remained nowhere close to an agreement for a new rescue package to address the coronavirus’s toll on the economy, growing increasingly pessimistic that they could meet a self-imposed Friday deadline as President Trump again threatened to act on his own to provide relief.

Even as they vowed to continue talks, negotiators remained dug in on crucial points of any potential deal, jeopardizing additional relief for small businesses and laid-off workers — and all but guaranteeing that senators who had planned to go home for a scheduled recess next week would instead stay in Washington awaiting a deal.

Given the number of outstanding policy issues, including the revival of expanded unemployment benefits and Mr. Trump’s rejection of a key Democratic demand for nearly $1 trillion for struggling state and local governments, the prospect of votes on such a package next week appeared remote.

“I feel optimistic that there is a light at the end of the tunnel,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said after hosting another round of talks in her Capitol Hill office with Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the minority leader. “But how long that tunnel is remains to be seen.”

Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, told reporters on Wednesday that the Senate would “certainly be in next week,” delaying the beginning of the recess in a bid to produce a legislative framework in the coming days.

Every day of delay risks further damage to an economic recovery that has stalled — and, by some measures, begun to regress — as the number of cases and deaths from the coronavirus continues to surge in the United States. Economic forecasters were bracing for the Labor Department’s monthly jobs report on Friday to show a significant deceleration in hiring from May and June. Any additional help for people and businesses that lawmakers approve in a new package, including a resumption of expanded unemployment benefits that have lapsed, could take weeks to make its way into the economy once Mr. Trump signs a new bill.

“There are no top-line numbers that have been agreed to,” Mr. Meadows said after the meeting, charging that Democrats were unwilling to make significant concessions. “We continue to be trillions of dollars apart in terms of what Democrats and Republicans hopefully will ultimately compromise on.”

“Is Friday a drop-dead date? No,” he added. “But my optimism continues to diminish the closer we get to Friday and certainly falls off the cliff exponentially after Friday.”

Barring a compromise, Mr. Trump and his top lieutenants on Wednesday continued to explore the possibility of taking executive action to address some of the unresolved disputes. Those included reinstating a weekly federal unemployment benefit that lapsed on Friday, reviving a federal moratorium on evictions and imposing a payroll tax cut that has been rejected by lawmakers in both parties.

It is unclear whether Mr. Trump has the legal authority to force the changes he wants without the consent of Congress. Democrats have sued to block Mr. Trump from repurposing federal funds for construction of his border wall. It is also not certain that the orders would work to bolster the economy as Mr. Trump hopes. For example, companies might not pass the savings of a suspended payroll tax on to their employees, and instead continue to withhold them in the event that the tax must be repaid next year.

“If we can reach a compromise on these big issues, I think everything else will fall into place,” Mr. Mnuchin said after briefing Mr. McConnell on the latest meeting. “If we can’t reach an agreement on these big issues, then I don’t see us coming to an overall deal and then we’ll have to look at the president taking actions under his executive authority.”

On Wednesday, disputes over funding for the Postal Service also emerged as a sticking point between Democratic leaders and the Trump administration, as top officials huddled with the postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, for more than an hour as part of their negotiations.

Mr. Schumer described a “heated discussion” with Mr. DeJoy, who he said had ignored multiple phone calls over concerns about slow mail delivery in New York. Democrats and voting rights groups have charged that cutbacks Mr. DeJoy has put into place are part of a deliberate effort by Mr. Trump to undermine the Postal Service in an effort to interfere with mail-in voting that will be critical to a safe election in November.

“We told him that elections are sacred and to do cutbacks, at a time when all ballots have to count — you can’t say, ‘Whoa, we’ll get 94 percent’ — is insufficient,” Mr. Schumer said after the meeting. “We are demanding that the regulations that are put in place, which cut employment over time, be rescinded, particularly because of Covid and because of the elections.”

Democrats are pushing for $10 billion to be allocated to the agency over a year, instead of their original proposal for distributing $25 billion over three years. They have also proposed additional money for food assistance programs, money for child care, and more than $900 billion to help states and local governments avoid laying off public workers as tax revenues fall. Administration officials have offered $150 billion in state and local aid, and on Wednesday, Mr. Trump said he opposed any such money.

“We can’t go along with the bailout money,” he told reporters at the White House. “We’re not going to go along with that.”

The fate of a $600-per-week federal unemployment supplement to laid-off workers, which lapsed last week in the absence of an agreement to extend them, also remains another significant point of contention. Senate Republicans want to slash the benefit.

Democrats are pressing to extend the payments through January. On Tuesday, Republicans countered with a plan to resume them at $400 per week through Dec. 15, according to two people with knowledge of the discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe them. Democrats declined the offer, which was first reported by Politico.

Some Senate Republicans, largely removed from the process, have begun discussing the possibility of holding procedural votes on individual proposals, forcing Democrats to block them. One of those votes could be an extension of the Paycheck Protection Program, a popular federal small-business loan program, which stops taking applications at the end of the week.

News of a self-imposed deadline did not completely assure senators that a deal was to be had, though some Republicans said it could compel some sort of compromise.

“At some point, you have to set a deadline, or just continue this Kabuki dance every day,” said Senator Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri. “Nobody wants to do that.”

“There’s plenty of time to get a deal if there’s a deal to be gotten,” he added. “If there’s not a deal to be gotten, there’s no reason to continue to act like there is.”

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