Top Trump administration officials proposed Sunday potentially short circuiting free-ranging stimulus talks with Democrats to rush through a much narrower bill prioritizing an extension of federal jobless benefits that are set to expire this week for millions of Americans.
White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said that he would like to see lawmakers act this week to extend and alter the unemployment program, give tax credits to businesses to help ease reopening costs and grant employers new liability protections — while setting aside a long list of other objectives, including Democrats' priorities.
"Perhaps we put that forward, get that passed, as we can negotiate on the rest of the bill in the weeks to come," Meadows said on ABC.
The proposal, echoed by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in his own Sunday TV interview, was a last-ditch effort by Republicans to prevent the program from lapsing as signs mounted that the nation's economy was once again weakening amid a resurgence of coronavirus cases. But as they prepared to roll out their own more expansive relief legislation Monday, it amounted to a concession that Republicans, slowed by their own internal divisions, were unlikely to reach a deal on a comprehensive relief package with Democrats before millions begin losing a $600-a-week benefit that has helped contain the economic carnage.
With Democrats already on record in opposition to a piecemeal approach, a narrow fix is almost certainly dead on arrival. Republicans know that, suggesting their Sunday proposal may in part be a negotiating tactic laying the groundwork to blame the opposition party when the funds ultimately expire.
Democrats passed their own $3 trillion proposal — which also includes money to bail out states and cities, fully fund the $600 federal jobless benefit and infuse billions more into the nation's health care system — in May and view the time pinch now as a problem of Republicans' making that only gives them more leverage in shaping a final bill.
"We've been anxious to negotiate for two months and 10 days," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Sunday on CBS. She said Congress could not leave town for its annual August recess until a deal is struck and noted that she spent the weekend waiting to hear from the other party to begin talks.
"This is an emergency," Pelosi added. "Maybe they don't understand. I don't know what they have against working families in America to keep this going so long."
In addition to a difference in negotiating strategy, the two sides have very different views about how to handle even the narrow set of issues identified by the White House. Republicans are proposing altering the jobless benefit program to replace the $600 flat weekly payments with a plan to replace about 70% of a worker's lost wages — a change Democrats are unlikely to endorse. And Democrats strongly oppose an effort by Republicans to give many employers new protections from lawsuits from their workers, patients or students.
In addition to the jobless change and liability protections, the GOP legislation is expected to include $105 billion for schools and billions of dollars more for testing, contact tracing and vaccine distribution. Some of the education funds would be reserved for elementary and secondary schools reopening and bringing students back to a more traditional, in-person setting.
The bill is likely to provide for another round of stimulus checks to American families, though it remains unclear who would be eligible to receive those payments. Larry Kudlow, director of the National Economic Council, said Sunday that the checks would be worth $1,200, though he did not detail who precisely would receive them.