Federal negotiators report progress in coronavirus relief talks, including extension of unemployment benefits

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WASHINGTON (AP) – Lawmakers reported progress on a huge coronavirus relief bill on Saturday, as political pressure intensifies to restore an additional $ 600 per week unemployment benefit expired and send funds to help schools reopen.

“It was the longest meeting we have had and it was more productive than the other meetings,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y., who was part of the rare session of the weekend. “We’re not close yet, but it’s been a productive discussion – now each side knows where it is. “

Schumer spoke alongside House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., After a three-hour meeting with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows.

Democratic leaders are eager for a far-reaching deal, as are President Donald Trump and senior Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. But perhaps half of Senate Republicans, mostly conservatives and those not facing tough races this fall, are likely to oppose any deal.

Earlier talks had yielded little progress and Saturday’s cautious optimism was a break from the grim private assessments among GOP negotiators. The administration is ready to extend the newly expired $ 600 unemployment benefit, at least in the short term, but balks at other democratic demands such as aid to state and local governments, increases in food stamps and assistance to tenants and owners.

Pelosi mentioned food aid and funding for the postal vote after the negotiating session ended. She and Schumer seemed more optimistic than after previous meetings.

“We need to get rid of this virus so that we can open our economy, open our schools safely, and do it in a way that does not reduce the benefits for American workers,” Pelosi said.

Mnuchin said reinstating the extra $ 600 unemployment benefit was of critical importance to Trump.

“We’re still a long way from each other and I don’t want to suggest a deal is imminent because it’s not,” Meadows said afterward. “There are still substantial differences, but we have made good progress. “

Supplementary unemployment benefit officially expired on Friday, and Democrats have made it clear they will not extend it without securing other relief priorities. Anything that unemployment aid negotiators agree on will be retroactive – but outdated state systems will likely take weeks to restore benefits.

Republicans in the Senate had fought to reduce the benefit by $ 600, saying it should be reduced so that people do not earn more unemployment than they would if they returned to work. But their determination weakened as the advantage expired, and Trump abruptly undermined their position by signaling that he wanted to keep the entire $ 600 for now.

Trump used Twitter on Friday to explicitly endorse the extension of the $ 600 payment and to criticize Schumer.

Major Washington players agree Congress must provide further relief in the days and weeks to come. Beyond the $ 600 a week in jobless benefits, there is a new direct payment of $ 1,200 to most Americans and hundreds of billions of dollars in other aid to states, businesses, and the poor, among others. elements.

Democrats hold a strong hand in the negotiations – exploiting GOP divisions – and are expected to provide a mine of needed votes.

The COVID package will be the fifth legislative response to the pandemic and may well be the last before the November elections. The only other essential bill on the agenda is an interim spending measure that should move forward in September.

Since May, the Republicans controlling the Senate had kept the relief negotiations on “pause” in a strategy to reduce its price. But as the pandemic rebounded over the summer – and divides within the GOP have eroded the party’s bargaining position – Republicans have shown greater flexibility.

Even with signs of progress in the talks, the list of points to be negotiated remains daunting.

McConnell’s must-read article is a liability shield against lawsuits for businesses, schools, and charities that reopen as the pandemic continues. The GOP’s business allies are strong supporters, but the country’s lawyers retain considerable influence in the opposition. Compromise is probably a difficult but necessary part of a final agreement.

Among Democrats’ priorities is increasing the benefits of food stamps. Republicans added $ 20 billion for agri-food companies, but no increase for food stamp benefits in their $ 1 trillion proposal. Meadows played a role in killing an increase in food aid during talks over the $ 2 trillion relief bill in March, but Pelosi appears determined. Increases in food stamps, say many economists, provide an immediate injection of demand into the economy in addition to tackling growing poverty.

Food aid was the first item Pelosi mentioned in a letter to fellow Democrats briefing them on progress.

“It’s a very different type of negotiation, because of the stakes. Millions of children are food insecure, millions of families are at risk of eviction and, for the nineteenth week in a row, more than a million Americans have applied for unemployment insurance, ”Pelosi said .

Par ANDREW TAYLOR Associated Press

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