WASHINGTON - Top congressional Democrats are set to meet Tuesday with White House officials, as lawmakers and President Donald Trump negotiate a new funding package to combat the vast health and economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States.
Tuesday’s private talks bring together Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and acting chief of staff Mark Meadows with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer.
The push for action comes with the country adding on average more than 66,000 new cases per day during the past week, and with federal payments of $600 per week to millions of unemployed workers set to expire at the end of July.
Trump and his Republican cohorts in Congress and opposition Democrats have yet to reach a consensus on what new aid to approve and how much money to spend.
Months ago, the White House and Congress approved a package of bills totaling more than $3 trillion, with unusual bipartisan agreement. Now Trump, Republican lawmakers and Democrats are voicing an array of coronavirus priorities they need to tackle before Congress leaves Washington in three weeks for its annual August recess. Lawmakers will not return until September.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday his party would focus on passing $105 billion in funding to return U.S. schoolchildren to in-person instruction when the school year begins in the fall, as well as new rounds of funding to address historic levels of unemployment.
“We’ll also be proposing a targeted second round of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) with a special eye toward hard-hit businesses,” McConnell said on the Senate floor Tuesday. “And speaking of building on what worked in the CARES Act, we want another round of direct payments to help American families keep driving our national comeback.”
McConnell, in an effort to boost the economic recovery, also wants provisions that curb the legal liability for businesses if their workers or customers contract the coronavirus. Trump has called for a temporary end to the 7.65% payroll tax on workers’ salaries that would benefit those who are working, but not the more than 17 million unemployed U.S. workers because they currently have no paychecks to tax.
Lawmakers of both parties have shown little interest in the president’s payroll tax cut proposal.
Senate Democrats released a proposal Tuesday that would send $430 billion in funding to state and local school districts to help them teach grade school students in person, online or in a hybrid model. McConnell said Tuesday that Republicans were proposing $105 billion in funding for schools. President Trump has suggested withholding federal funding to school districts if they do not reopen fully when the school year resumes in the fall.
“Bullying schools with a one-size-fits-all demand is not the road to get back to in-person learning. It is the road to chaos, more infections and would put families and school staff at risk,” Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, author of the proposal, told reporters in a conference call Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers want to extend the $600-a-week federal boost to less generous state unemployment benefits through the end of 2020 and provide more aid for state and local governments to weather the coronavirus crisis.
Some Republicans want to end the extra federal unemployment payments, saying they are a disincentive to push employees back to their jobs because some employees have made more money unemployed than when they were working.
Some lawmakers have suggested a compromise, extending the jobless benefits but cutting them to between $200 and $400 a week or limiting them to the workers who were paid the least before being laid off.
In a press call with reporters Tuesday, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said there was no magic number for the amount of unemployment benefits, suggesting "it is not irrational to talk about making sure the neediest are taken care of, and neediest is in the eye of the beholder. “
McConnell has said a new coronavirus spending deal could total about $1 trillion, but Democrats want a much bigger plan, more in line with the $3 trillion measure the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives approved in mid-May. That package, however, has languished in the Republican-controlled Senate as Democrats have called for its passage.