WASHINGTON – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows resumed talks Thursday over a stalled COVID-19 aid package, but the outlook for any swift resolution appeared bleak as President Donald Trump's team and congressional Democrats have been unable to agree on a compromise.
Pelosi said she told Meadows the Democrats would be willing to meet halfway — at $2.2 trillion — a slight reduction from her last proposal before talks collapsed earlier this month. The White House, which has stuck with its initial $1 trillion offer, had no immediate response.
“We have said again and again that we’re willing to meet them in the middle — $2.2 trillion. When they’re willing to do that, we’ll be willing to discuss the particulars,” Pelosi told reporters at the Capitol.
Their 25-minute afternoon call was the first attempt to kick-start negotiations since talks fell apart. The stalemate comes as jobless claims hit 1 million Thursday and households are struggling, with the mounting virus toll now above 180,000 deaths, higher than any other country.
House Democrats' opening bid was the $3 trillion-plus Heroes Act, a sweeping aid package approved in May. It proposed money for cash-strapped states, housing and jobless assistance, to help schools reopen and to conduct more widespread virus testing.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who hit “pause” on that package of new spending, eventually came up with a $1 trillion counter-offer a few weeks ago. But he acknowledged Thursday that talks are in a “stalemate.”
McConnell, R-Ky. said he remained hopeful for a deal.
“We need another one, the country needs another one,” he said during a visit to a hospital in Pikeville, Kentucky.
Congress is on recess until September and it appears unlikely lawmakers will be recalled to Washington unless there is a deal ready for voting. Talks are nowhere near resolution and in fact broadening to include Postal Service funds before the November election. Also, a need for new disaster aid is expected with the Gulf state hurricanes and California wildfires.
Any relief package could become rolled into talks over a must-pass package to keep the government funded after the Sept. 30 budget year deadline.
McConnell floated a “skinny” proposal last week, trying to move talks toward a more narrow band of priorities that most Democrats and Republicans agree on, including help for small business and some type of a jobless benefits boost to replace the $600 weekly boost that expired in July.
There is also widespread support for at least $105 billion for education to help schools prepare for fall classes, and McConnell also suggested $10 billion for the Postal Service, which is less than the $25 billion mail rescue Pelosi and Democrats approved Saturday during widespread postal disruptions.
One key sticking point involves sending federal dollars to cash-strapped state and local governments. Democrats initially sought $1 trillion to help cities and states weather the coronavirus crisis, but Trump, McConnell and other Republicans refuse to provide what they call “bailouts” for states.
Pelosi said she’s willing to continue negotiating but only if Trump and Republicans meet her half way. She had earlier shaved $1 trillion off the Heroes Act, to $2.4 trillion, in the first round of talks.
“We're not going to budge,” the California Democrat said.
“We can't go any less because we have to meet the needs of the American people,” she said. “When they are willing to do that, they’ll let us know.”
Meadows, a former congressman who headed the conservative Freedom Caucus, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have been briefing Republican senators almost daily. But those familiar with the private conference calls say there has been little new information about any new deal.
Yet McConnell faces his own difficulties because many, if not most, GOP senators appear satisfied, for now, that there remains enough existing aid available and new money is not needed. The split in his ranks gives Pelosi an upper hand in talks because she has been able to bring most of her Democrats on board with her proposals.