Virus talks on brink of collapse, sides still 'far apart'

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Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin speaks to reporters as White House chief of staff Mark Meadows stands left on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Aug. 6, 2020. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

WASHINGTON – Washington talks on vital COVID-19 rescue money are teetering on the brink of collapse after a marathon meeting in the Capitol Thursday night generated a wave of recriminations but little progress on the top issues confronting negotiators.

“There’s a handful of very big issues that we are still very far apart" on, said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who depicted a stalemate on aid to states and local governments and renewing supplemental unemployment benefits.

Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows said they would return to the White House to brief President Donald Trump to consider next steps. Democratic negotiators pleaded for talks to continue.

Both sides said the future of the negotiations is uncertain. Trump is considering executive orders to address evictions and unemployment insurance in the coming days.

“The President’s first choice is to do a deal. We’ve said that,” Mnuchin told reporters. “If we conclude tomorrow that there is not a compromise position on the major issues the president has alternatives.”

A breakdown in the talks would put at risk more than $100 billion to help reopen schools, a fresh round of $1,200 direct payments to most people, and hundreds of billions of dollars for state and local governments to help them avoid furloughing workers and cutting services as tax revenues shrivel.

Failure would also bring political consequences that may be difficult to predict, but among those most invested in reaching an agreement are Senate Republicans facing difficult reelection races this fall. Trump, whose drop in the polls has coincided with the continued spread of the virus, had been seen as keen to get a deal as well. But his top negotiators signaled they are ready to walk away.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she would consider ways to curb the overall cost of the legislation, but cast the impasse as a deeper philosophical dispute between the two sides.