Deep Washington divide on coronavirus aid as jobless benefit to expire

House Majority Leader Hoyer testifies as the House Rules Committee meets to consider a resolution authorizing remote voting by proxy and to formulate a rule on the newest coronavirus relief bill in Washington

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi said talks with the White House on a new coronavirus aid bill were not yet on a path toward reaching a deal on Friday, hours before the expiration of a federal unemployment benefit that has been an essential lifeline for millions of Americans.

Asked why she rejected a proposal from Republican President Donald Trump’s administration for a one-week extension of the $600 enhanced weekly jobless payment, Pelosi told reporters that such a move would occur “if you are on a path” toward a deal.

“We’re not,” the Democrat told a news conference.

However, negotiations were to continue on Friday between White House officials and congressional Democrats.

White House officials took their own hard partisan line, accusing Democrats of refusing Trump’s proposals to extend the jobless benefit and a moratorium on evictions that expired last week.

“What we’re seeing is politics as usual from Democrats on Capitol Hill,” White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows – a former Republican House member – told reporters.

Lawmakers and the White House are at odds over efforts to further shore up the economy and manage the novel coronavirus pandemic, which has left tens of millions of Americans out of work and killed at least 152,384 people in the United States.

In a meeting Thursday night between top White House officials and congressional Democratic leaders, negotiations focused on an extension of the $600 per week in federal unemployment benefits, which Americans who lost jobs because of the health crisis have been receiving in addition to state jobless payments.

The Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sent senators home for the weekend without reaching a deal.

According to a person familiar with the closed-door negotiations, the White House proposed reducing the $600 weekly payment to $400 for the next four months. While that was a move toward the demands of Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, the source said they rejected it as insufficient.

On Thursday, Senate Republicans tried, without success, to pass a bill reducing the jobless benefit to $200 per week.

For weeks, McConnell has said any deal must include a shield for companies and schools from liability lawsuits as they reopen.

The source, who asked not to be identified, said the White House hinted that it could embrace a deal without that provision.

Democrats want a wide-ranging economic stimulus bill that would include about $1 trillion in aid to state and local governments experiencing plunging revenues during the economic downturn.

In mid-May, the Democratic-controlled House passed a $3 trillion bill that the Republican Senate has ignored.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan; additional reporting by Susan Heavey; writing by Richard Cowan and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Marguerita Choy, Nick Zieminski and Jonathan Oatis)