Deal on U.S. coronavirus aid bill elusive as jobless benefit nears expiration

epaselect epa08571332 US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell delivers remarks to members of the news media following a Republican policy luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, USA, 28 July 2020. Trump administration officials such as White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin are meeting with Senate and House leadership to discuss a new stimulus package to continue mitigating the impact of the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. Most of the relief measures of a previous stimulus package, the CARES Act, will expire at the end of July. EPA-EFE/MICHAEL REYNOLDS

WASHINGTON, July 30 (Reuters) - Just one day before a federal jobless benefit was set to expire, the U.S. Congress was no closer on Thursday to a deal extending or replacing the extra $600 per week in payments to tens of millions of Americans thrown out of work by the coronavirus pandemic.

Lacking a deal, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell maneuvered to allow votes next week on a Republican plan to extend the expiring unemployment benefit, but would slash it to $200 a week.

While the measure may be blocked by Democrats, who want to continue the current benefit, it could spur lawmakers and the White House to accelerate negotiations next week toward a compromise.

The Senate adjourned for the weekend and will return Monday, after the unemployment insurance benefit has expired.

President Donald Trump, at a news conference, said that in addition to extending the jobless benefits, he wanted to help extend protection from eviction for renters who have lost their jobs because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Democrats have already proposed extending a moratorium on evictions that expired July 25, but have resisted White House entreaties to do a separate deal on that and the unemployment insurance benefits while leaving other coronavirus relief issues for later.

“We’ll be putting certain things on the table,” Trump, a Republican, told reporters, without giving details. “We want to get money to people, and it has to be substantial. It’s not their fault what happened. … It’s China’s fault.”

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows were expected to meet with Democratic leaders later on Thursday over how to help the country cope with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, Democrat Joe Biden, the former vice president who is challenging Trump in November’s election, accused McConnell and Trump of risking further economic slowdown by refusing to grant additional federal funds to state and local governments.

“It’s meager support they are offering for schools and local governments,” Biden told the American Federation of Teachers union.

Democrats have been pushing for extending the supplemental jobless benefit as part of a $3 trillion coronavirus aid bill the House of Representatives passed in May, while Republicans want $1 trillion overall. The supplemental benefit for the unemployed proposed by both parties would be on top of state unemployment payments.

The past four days of private talks involving top White House and congressional officials have yielded no tangible results, and Republicans and Democrats spent much of Thursday sparring over their differences.

“Republicans don’t want this aid to expire,” McConnell said. “But the speaker and the (Senate) Democratic leader say they won’t agree to anything unless the program pays people more to stay home than to work.”

Schumer responded by saying that a “skinny bill” floated by the White House to provide reduced unemployment benefits did not have the votes to pass the House or the Senate. “It’s a stunt,” he said.

Republicans have criticized the $600 weekly supplemental benefit because, combined with state unemployment benefits, some people end up with more money than when they were working.

Congress has already passed aid packages totaling $3 trillion to alleviate the effects of the virus, which has killed 150,000 Americans.

Republicans oppose a Democratic call for nearly $1 trillion to aid state and local governments, while Democrats reject Republican demands to prevent liability lawsuits for businesses and schools as they reopen during the pandemic. (Reporting by Susan Cornwell and David Morgan in Washington; Additional reporting by Michael Martina in Detroit; Writing by Richard Cowan and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Scott Malone, Peter Cooney, Tom Brown and Leslie Adler)


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