Christal Hayes, Nicholas Wu and Ledyard King
USA TODAYPublished 6:42 AM EDT Jul 30, 2020WASHINGTON – Millions of Americans are unemployed. Schools across the country are only weeks away from reopening. And cases of COVID-19 continue to spike.Pressure is mounting as Congress and the White House enter yet another round of negotiations on what would be a fifth round of emergency stimulus funding to help counter the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. But a deal is proving elusive. Congressional leaders and the White House, after days of negotiating this week, appear to be on entirely different pages on what should be included in the bill. Some described the process as a “mess” and another lamented that even among Republicans, there was “no consensus on anything.””I’m not optimistic that we’ll reach any kind of comprehensive deal,” White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows told reporters on Capitol Hill Wednesday evening before another negotiation meeting with top Democrats.The two sides find themselves trillions of dollars apart in a political environment far different than when they passed previous emergency coronavirus measures this spring. The pandemic’s continued toll has have shifted the political ground beneath them as President Donald Trump stumbles in the polls and crucial November elections stand just months away.”I’m going to speak in animal terms. Say you are at the zoo. You see a giraffe. You see a flamingo. These two bills aren’t mateable,” Pelosi said Tuesday during closed-door talks with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Meadows and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., according to a source familiar who was not authorized to speak publicly.Here’s a look at the uphill battle this relief package is facing and why negotiations for this bill are so different than emergency funds that came before it: More: Meadows: ‘Not optimistic’ on COVID-19 stimulus deal, including unemployment boostGOP and Dems want very different things Policy priorities for Democrats and Republicans are more apparent in the latest package, as members of both parties huddle in their respective political corners.Republicans have dubbed the House’s bill a liberal wish list and Democrats claim the Senate proposal is a weak bill aimed at prioritizing businesses over workers and American families.Democrats are pushing a $3 trillion plan while Sen. Mitch Connell’s $1 trillion offering he unveiled Monday is being rejected by some in his own party who say it’s too much. That means many priorities of House Democrats – billions for state and local governments, the U.S. Postal Service and food assistance, among others – aren’t even mentioned in the Senate Republican bill. There are seemingly untouchable issues for each side too.Democrats want to extend the current $600 per week unemployment benefit that expires July 31 while Republicans want much less. Republicans want liability protections for employers, including schools, businesses and nursing homes who might be sued by employers and customers, but Democrats oppose such protections saying it would come at the expense of workers, consumers and patients.“Neither this bill nor anything resembling it will ever become law – it’s a Democratic wish list filled up with all the party’s favored policies,” McConnell said after the House unveiled its $3 trillion package in May. On Monday, he called it a “multi-trillion-dollar socialist manifesto.” Pelosi and Schumer similarly swatted down the GOP proposal, calling it on Tuesday “a sad statement of their values, selling out struggling families at the kitchen table in order to enrich the corporate interests at the boardroom table.” More: ‘Suburban Lifestyle Dream’: Trump attacks fair housing rule in tweet critics call ‘vile’More: Trump says he did not ask Vladimir Putin about bounties on US troopsElection nears, bipartisanship fades Three months. That’s how long before Election Day, when voters will decide who should run the country and potentially change which party controls each chamber in Congress. During any presidential election year, Congress typically isn’t expected to tackle any major legislation, but the pandemic and urgent needs nationally have forced leaders in both parties to the table. Throughout March and part of April, the administration and lawmakers on both sides quickly hashed out their differences and passed four bills totaling more than $3 trillion, a tremendous feat amid a bitterly divided Congress just on the heels of impeaching the president. Fast-forward to today and the bipartisanship spirit between lawmakers and the administration – also worried about its own political future – has turned sour.Polling has revealed Americans’ distaste with the president’s handling of the pandemic with former Vice President Joe Biden ahead in a number of battleground states that were pivotal to Trump’s 2016 win. Polls have also shown some of that distaste has bled down the ballot, hurting Republicans’ chances of keeping control of the Senate and taking hold of the House. Those partisan lines in the sand could worsen as both Republicans and Democrats are scheduled to hold their national conventions in August, when both Biden and Trump will officially accept their party’s nomination for the White House.Typically, the conventions mark the official start to campaign season. Neither party is going to be eager to pass something that could be seen as a win for the opposing party. More: ‘Giant of a man’: Three former presidents to attend John Lewis’ funeral in AtlantaGOP clashing with Trump’s prioritiesIt’s not just Democrats who are panning the GOP stimulus plan. A number of Senate Republicans criticized it as too costly and full of unnecessary expenditures. Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz said there was “significant resistance” within the GOP caucus to the bill. And that was before the discovery of a $1.75 billion provision in the Republican package to rebuild the FBI headquarters in downtown Washington, D.C. — a priority for Trump. “We need a new building. It’s a bad building,” the president told reporters at the White House Wednesday about the FBI’s current home, which is in disrepair and considered inefficient for the bureau’s purposes. But a number of Republican senators, including McConnell, say they didn’t know it was in the bill and oppose its inclusion in legislation aimed at helping Americans recover from the impacts of coronavirus. “That makes no sense to me,” South Carolina Repulican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a close Trump ally, told reporters Tuesday, adding he’d be “fine” stripping out the money.’Republicans are really fed up’: GOP increasingly splits with Trump as his polls dragIt’s another distraction that could get in the way of a deal and test GOP loyalty to Trump as the election approaches. Republicans in recent weeks have split with the president on a number of areas, including urging him to wear a face mask in public and his opposition to the Pentagon stripping Confederate names from military bases. Trump, as he left the White House Wednesday morning, said congressional Republicans who are opposed to the funds for a new FBI building should “go back to school and learn.” GOP worries about deficits Not only are there divisions among Republicans about what should be included, but some lawmakers have also voiced concerns over whether another package was even needed as the national deficit continues to balloon. As of last month, it hit $863 billion — more than 100 times what it was in the same month last year. Cruz has been a vocal opponent of more spending. He told reporters on Capitol Hill Tuesday there was “sharp disagreement” among Republicans about their bill, and last week on Fox News, he said he stood up in a lunch meeting with his colleagues and told them, “What in the hell are we doing? We can’t just keep shoveling cash at this.”Cruz argued Republicans needed to work on creating a “recovery bill” to roll back taxes and regulations instead of providing more funds. His colleague, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has also sounded the alarm on the deficit. “We don’t have any money in Washington. There’s no rainy-day account. There’s no savings account,” he told reporters Tuesday. “So, I’m not for borrowing another trillion dollars to pass out. That’s an illusion of wealth, not real wealth, when you create money and give it to people.” “I think if Mitch can get half the conference that’d be quite an accomplishment,” Graham said Tuesday. McConnell acknowledged the challenges in an interview with PBS NewsHour Wednesday evening, when he said “about 20 of our members think that we’ve already done enough.” “That’s not my view,” he added, nor was it the view of the “majority” of Republican senators. More: ‘I’m losing my patience’: Jayapal, Nadler spar with Barr over Portland, politicizationSchooling offers swift deadline The tedious negotiations come as schools across the country are several weeks away from the start of a new school year.Districts across the country are weighing whether they should reopen for students, offer a mixed mode of learning or stay closed as COVID-19 continues to spread.Schools typically start in August or early September leaving little time for funds to pass Congress, get Trump’s signature and also get into the hands of school districts that will need boosted funds to ensure safety for teachers, children and staff.While there are major differences between Republicans, Democrats and the administration , funds for education have seemingly emerged as a bipartisan bright spot – though not without some partisan bickering.Democrats, who approved their bill in May, allotted $100 billion for schools. Republicans have set aside $105 billion, though their bill also gives money to private schools and ties some of the funds to schools reopening – proposals which Democrats oppose.Pelosi has also signaled that Democrats now want more funds for schools since their $100 billion proposal was crafted months before schools were readying for the fall.While there is agreement that schools need more funding, members of both parties have huddled in their respective corners. Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the ranking member on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, called the Republican proposal an attempt at “bullying schools” into reopening. “Democrats want schools to reopen for in-person learning if it can be done safely – but the partisan Republican proposal would put students, educators, and communities at risk by taking a one-size fits all approach and pushing school districts to ignore local public health officials,” they said in a statement. “This is not a plan to help schools reopen safely; it is a recipe for more chaos and illness.”Some have remained confidant that despite the hurdles, funds would reach schools in time. “I would expect that by the time we get to Labor Day, schools will begin to see money,” Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., told reporters on Capitol Hill, adding that there are mandates in the bill that force money to go out the door within 15 days. “It’ll go pretty fast.”More: Rep. Gohmert wonders if wearing a mask led to COVID-19 diagnosis despite health guidance to the contraryShort-term extension gets a tepid receptionAs negotiations continue, the Trump administration has floated a short-term fix – a temporary extension of the boost to unemployment benefits and a moratorium on evictions. Mnuchin told reporters Wednesday he spoke to the president about a possible short-term extension.”As of now we’re very far apart and because of that – the president and we have discussed a short-term extension to (unemployment insurance) and the evictions so that we have some period to negotiate before this runs out,” he told reporters on the White House South Lawn. A key sticking point in negotiations between Republicans and Democrats has been whether to extend an additional $600 that about 30 million unemployed Americans received as part of their unemployment benefits.The enhanced employment insurance is set to expire this week. A federal moratorium that had shielded about 12 million Americans from eviction expired last Friday.Democratic leaders, however, object to a short-term extension. Speaking to reporters following the end of negotiations on Wednesday afternoon, Pelosi and Schumer said Republicans had come up with a “skinny little bill that doesn’t address the moment.” Asked about support for a short-term extension like Mnuchin had floated, Pelosi said, “there is no short-term extension” and Schumer said, “they don’t have anything that would pass the Senate.”Some senators warmed to the short-term proposal, but others shot it down. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., told reporters Tuesday, “Ultimately, it’s clear we’re not going to have a universal agreement in place Friday so there may be some things that have to be done that way.” And the idea gained some traction on the other side of the aisle, too. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., told reporters, “I think that for some period of time (unemployment extensions) could make sense.” Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said he pitched a short-term fix to senators that would continue a boost to unemployment benefits that would start at $600 in August and then decrease by $200 per month, but his proposal did not appear to pick up much traction, either. “I don’t want to see the supplemental payments cut off and having people suffering while we’re negotiating a very large package,” he said.
Christal Hayes, Nicholas Wu and Ledyard King