Mnuchin, Schumer rev up talks as small-business aid runs dry

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Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., left, wears a face mask to fend off the coronavirus as she listens to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., speaks during a news conference to call on FEMA to grant approval for Disaster Funeral Assistance to help families in lower-income communities and communities of color across New York pay for funeral costs amid the coronavirus pandemic, Tuesday, April 14, 2020, in Corona neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

WASHINGTON – With a key coronavirus rescue fund nearly exhausted, negotiations are accelerating in Washington over President Donald Trump’s $250 billion emergency request to help smaller employers across the country keep workers on their payroll.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin spoke Wednesday morning about legislation to shore up a paycheck subsidy program that has nearly reached its $349 billion lending limit. House and Senate Democratic aides spoke by phone with Treasury officials later in the day about Democratic demands for additional money for hospitals and state and local governments.

Reaching a deal won't be easy. The Capitol is largely shuttered, requiring consensus from all sides for any legislation to pass, and top GOP leaders are vowing to stick closely to Trump’s request despite Democratic demands. Long-standing feuds and rivalries hang over the talks, including a toxic relationship between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Trump.

But the unprecedented legislative environment gives Democrats considerable influence, even if their funding requests for hospitals and state and local governments may have to be scaled back significantly or dropped, at least for now. Democrats blocked a fast-track bid to pass the funding last week, and Republicans in turn stymied their efforts for additional funding for other priorities in a brief debate that was mostly a messaging exercise.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., issued a joint statement with top House Republican Kevin McCarthy of California urging quick funding for the paycheck program. The Senate is away from Washington through May 4, though it convenes twice each week for pro forma sessions that could be used to pass more coronavirus aid — though only if no senator objects.

Republicans amped up the pressure for a “clean” extension of the paycheck program in statements Wednesday night. House GOP Whip Steve Scalise said Democrats “need to stop holding small businesses and workers across America hostage to their endless spending demands.”

With leaders unable to readily summon lawmakers to Washington, the usual power dynamics are scrambled, especially in the House. There, Minority Leader McCarthy, for example, can stymie legislation more easily than if members are present, and Pelosi, D-Calif., cannot rule the House with her typical tight grip.

“Tell Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi to STOP blocking critical funding for small businesses. The Paycheck Protection Program is about to run out of money -- millions of jobs are hanging in the balance. Congress MUST ACT!” McCarthy wrote Tuesday on Twitter.