WASHINGTON – Crisis negotiations between the White House and top Democrats teetered on the brink of collapse Friday, as both sides said they remained deeply divided on an economic recovery package and President Donald Trump's advisers said they would recommend that he bypass Congress and act on his own to provide relief.
It was not clear what power Trump might have to move unilaterally to extend jobless aid or otherwise redirect federal relief money as he sees fit because Congress controls spending. But the announcement by Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, and Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, that they were counseling him to do so reflected the failure of days of marathon talks to reach a bipartisan compromise to pump more aid into the slowing economic recovery.
It came after another unproductive meeting between the administration officials and Democratic leaders, which ended with no agreement and no additional talks scheduled.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill said they were bracing for the president to act unilaterally to reinstate supplemental unemployment benefits in some form, possibly by invoking a law that governs federal response to natural disasters like hurricanes. Administration officials have suggested that Trump might seek to repurpose funds that Congress allocated for coronavirus relief this year that have not yet been spent by states or federal agencies.
Critical issues continue to divide the parties, including the overall price tag of the bill and whether to help states and localities across the country bridge budget shortfalls that are a direct result of the pandemic recession. The central tension point has been how much additional assistance to send to unemployed Americans, who were receiving a $600-per-week supplemental check from the federal government on top of their normal state benefits until the program lapsed at the end of July.
Republicans have shifted positions on the additional unemployment benefits, first proposing to extend them at a much lower rate, then raising their bid in negotiations with Democrats. But Trump has remained steadfast in his public opposition to any money for states and local governments, which he has falsely said would go only to states run by Democrats and does not have any relationship to the current crisis.
He reiterated those complaints Friday afternoon on Twitter, vowing, "We are going a different way" with negotiations.
Lawmakers and policy analysts in Washington were split Friday over whether any unilateral move by Trump would effectively scuttle further talks or serve to accelerate them. Democrats emerged from what they called a "disappointing" afternoon negotiating session and accused the administration of refusing to compromise.
"I don't care what rose they try to pin on it, it's got a lot of thorns," said Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California. "This isn't about negotiating or leverage or anything. It's about meeting the needs of the American people."
Administration officials held out the possibility that further negotiations could yet yield a compromise.
"I don't want to speculate as to whether there is an agreement or not," Mnuchin said. "We will continue to try to get an agreement that's in the best interest of the people, and that's why we're here."
While the executive orders had not yet been completed, Meadows said it was likely that action would come over the weekend. But Trump abruptly scheduled a news conference Friday night at his Bedminster, N.J., golf resort.
"This is not a perfect answer — we'll be the first ones to say that," Meadows said of the prospect of presidential orders. "But it is all that we can do and all the president can do within the confines of his executive power, and we're going to encourage him to do it."
Democrats, who had earlier said they would be willing to lower their spending demands to $2 trillion from $3.4 trillion, said the White House needed to return with a higher overall price tag after Trump's negotiators declined to accept that offer. Republicans have proposed a $1 trillion plan.
"The House is Democratic. They need a majority of Democratic votes in the Senate," said Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader. "Meet us in the middle — for God's sake, please, for the sake of America — meet us in the middle."
Mnuchin and Meadows demanded that Democrats agree to lower the amount of aid for state and local governments and provide more specifics about how they were proposing to compromise on a revival of lapsed unemployment benefits.
A jobs report Friday that found that the U.S. economy added 1.8 million jobs in July further muddled the talks, giving each side support for its talking points. Democrats seized on it as a call to action, quickly issuing a statement calling for a face-to-face meeting to continue negotiations on the stimulus package.
But the White House and Republicans, who are pressing for a narrower recovery measure, cheered the report, which beat economists' expectations, and were likely to see it as confirmation of their argument that it is time to scale back federal help.
In a private call with Republican senators Friday morning, Mnuchin and Meadows indicated that the funding for state and local governments remained one of the most stark divisions between the two parties, according to two people familiar with the discussion, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose the details of a private phone call.