Bipartisan U.S. lawmaker group to unveil $1.5 trillion COVID-19 aid bill

By David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A group of 50 Democratic and Republican members of Congress is due to unveil $1.5 trillion bipartisan coronavirus relief legislation on Tuesday, in an election year effort to break a month-long impasse in COVID-19 talks between the White House and top Democrats.

The Problem Solvers Caucus, which includes members of both parties in the House of Representatives, was set to outline the legislative package at an 11 a.m. (1500 GMT) press conference at the U.S. Capitol.

The group, which says it has been working to find common ground on coronavirus relief for the past six weeks, agreed on the measure just before House lawmakers returned to Washington from a summer recess on Monday.

“This is just a framework to hopefully get the negotiators back to the table,” U.S. Representative Josh Gottheimer, the group’s Democratic co-chairman, told CNBC.

The proposal includes another round of direct checks to Americans, $500 billion for state and local governments and jobless benefits, with spending lasting beyond next January’s presidential inauguration, a source familiar with the plan said.

With less than two months to go before the Nov. 3 election, there is growing anxiety among lawmakers about the inability of Congress and President Donald Trump’s White House to agree on a package to deliver relief to millions of Americans and an economy reeling from the coronavirus pandemic.

Talks between the White House, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer broke down in early August and the two sides remain nearly $900 billion apart. But Pelosi and U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in recent days have both signaled a willingness to keep talking.

White House adviser Jared Kushner on Tuesday separately told CNBC he hoped a deal could be reached but that it might not happen until after the election.

Trump on Tuesday also cited the need for more funding but sought to cast blame on the House Democratic leader, telling Fox News in an interview: “We could use additional stimulus, but Nancy Pelosi won’t approve it because she thinks it’s bad for me in the election.”

Democrats, who control the House, passed their $3.4 trillion package in mid-May. They later said they would accept $2.2 trillion in spending, while the White House signaled a willingness to accept $1.3 trillion.

Republican congressional leaders have not participated in the discussions. The Republican-controlled Senate failed to pass a $300 billion coronavirus bill that Senate Democrats called inadequate. A slimmed-down version of an earlier $1 trillion Republican measure also failed.

(Reporting by David Morgan; additional reporting by by Susan Heavey; Editing Bernadette Baum and Steve Orlofsky)

Mnuchin to testify Sept. 1 before House coronavirus panel

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin will face lawmakers’ questions over stalled coronavirus aid negotiations between the Trump administration and Congress next week when he testifies before a House of Representatives panel, lawmakers said on Wednesday.

The Sept. 1 hearing “will examine the urgent need for additional economic relief for children, workers, and families and the Administration’s implementation of key stimulus programs,” the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis said in a statement.

The hearing will be Mnuchin’s first congressional testimony since talks on a new round of $1 trillion to $3 trillion in federal coronavirus aid collapsed in early August.

No intensive talks between Mnuchin, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer have taken place since then.

President Donald Trump subsequently signed an executive order partially extending supplemental unemployment benefits and deferring payment of some payroll taxes, but implementation details are unclear.

The focus of congressional action also shifted to the U.S. Postal Service, with House Democrats last Saturday passing a $25 billion funding bill aimed at thwarting planned service cuts and ensuring delivery of mail-in ballots for the November election. Republicans have declared the measure dead.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey and David Lawder; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Nick Macfie)

Mnuchin declines to say if U.S. COVID-19 aid deal can be reached

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Wednesday that the White House and top Democrats in Congress may not be able to reach a deal on coronavirus aid, in the fifth day without talks on the stalemate blocking relief to tens of millions of Americans.

Mnuchin, who spent nearly two weeks trying to broker a deal in talks with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, also described the potential outcome of negotiations in terms of President Donald Trump’s reelection prospects.

“I can’t speculate. If the Democrats are willing to be reasonable, there’s a compromise. If the Democrats are focused on politics and don’t want to do anything that’s going to succeed for the president, there won’t be a deal,” he told Fox Business Network in an interview.

Schumer accused Republicans of refusing to meet in the middle, after Democrats offered to agree on midpoint between Senate Republicans $1 trillion offer and the $3 trillion measure passed by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives in May. Mnuchin on Wednesday again dismissed the Democrats’ offer as “ridiculous.”

The impasse, which began last Friday when talks broke down without an agreement, has put U.S. investors on edge with more than 5.16 million COVID-19 cases in the United States.

The global pandemic has taken a particularly heavy toll on the United States, where it has killed more than 164,000 people, more than any other country.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey and David Morgan; Editing by Toby Chopra and Chizu Nomiyama)

Trump signs coronavirus relief orders after talks with Congress break down

By Jeff Mason

BEDMINSTER, N.J. (Reuters) – President Donald Trump signed executive orders on Saturday partly restoring enhanced unemployment payments to the tens of millions of Americans who lost jobs in the coronavirus pandemic, as the United States marked a grim milestone of 5 million cases.

Negotiations broke down this week between the White House and top Democrats in Congress over how best to help Americans cope with the heavy human and economic toll of the crisis, which has killed more than 160,000 people across the country.

Trump said the orders would provide an extra $400 per week in unemployment payments, less than the $600 per week passed earlier in the crisis. Some of the measures were likely to face legal challenges, as the U.S. Constitution gives Congress authority over federal spending.

“This is the money they need, this is the money they want, this gives them an incentive to go back to work,” the Republican president said of the lower payments. He said 25% of it would be paid by states, whose budgets have been hard hit by the crisis.

Republicans have argued that higher payments were a disincentive for unemployed Americans to try to return to work, though economists, including Federal Reserve officials, disputed that assertion.

Trump’s move to take relief measures out of the hands of Congress drew immediate criticism from some Democrats.

“Donald Trump is trying to distract from his failure to extend the $600 federal boost for 30 million unemployed workers by issuing illegal executive orders,” said Senator Ron Wyden, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee. “This scheme is a classic Donald Trump con: playacting at leadership while robbing people of the support they desperately need.”

The Democratic-majority House of Representatives passed a coronavirus support package in May which the Republican-led Senate ignored.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden called the orders a “series of half-baked measures” and accused Trump of putting Social Security “at grave risk” by delaying the collection of payroll taxes that pay for the program.

Trump also said he was suspending collection of payroll taxes, which pay for Social Security and other federal programs, an idea that he has repeatedly raised but has been rejected by both parties in Congress. He said the suspension would apply to people making less than $100,000 per year.

His orders would also stop evictions from rental housing that has federal financial backing and extend zero percent interest on federally financed student loans.

Trump initially played down the disease’s threat and has drawn criticism for inconsistent messages on public health steps such as social distancing and masks.

He spoke to reporters on Saturday at his New Jersey golf club, in a room that featured a crowd of cheering supporters.

FAR APART

Nearly two weeks of talks between White House officials and congressional Democrats ended on Friday with the two sides still about $2 trillion apart.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had pushed to extend the enhanced unemployment payments, which expired at the end of July, at the previous rate of $600 as well as to provide more financial support for city and state governments battered by the crisis.

Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on Friday offered to reduce the $3.4 trillion coronavirus aid package that the House passed in May by nearly a third if Republicans would agree to more than double their $1 trillion counteroffer.

White House negotiators Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Chief of Staff Mark Meadows rejected the offer.

The $1 trillion package that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell unveiled late last month ran into immediate opposition from his own party, with as many as 20 of the Senate’s 53 Republicans expected to oppose it.

Trump did not rule out a return to negotiations with Congress.

“I’m not saying they’re not going to come back and negotiate,” he said on Saturday. “Hopefully, we can do something with them at a later date.”

Democrats have already warned that such executive orders are legally dubious and would likely be challenged in court, but a court fight could take months.

Trump has managed to sidestep Congress on spending before, declaring a national emergency on the U.S.-Mexico border to shift billions of dollars from the defense budget to pay for a wall he promised during his 2016 election campaign.

Congress passed legislation to stop him, but there were too few votes in the Republican-controlled Senate to override his veto – a scenario that would likely play out again with less than 90 days to go before the Nov. 3 presidential election.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason, additional reporting by Raphael Satter, Brad Brooks, and Rich McKay; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Diane Craft, Daniel Wallis, Jonathan Oatis and Sonya Hepinstall)

Democrats offer to cut $1 trillion from coronavirus plan, White House says no

By Richard Cowan and David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Democrats in Congress said on Friday they had offered to reduce a proposed coronavirus aid package by a trillion dollars if Republicans would add a trillion to their counter-offer, but the idea was flatly rejected by Donald Trump’s White House.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi disclosed the offer as she and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer prepared to meet White House negotiators again on Friday afternoon.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, one of the White House negotiators, rejected Pelosi’s proposal out of hand, telling reporters, “that’s a non-starter.”

After nearly two weeks of talks that have failed to make substantial progress, the Republican president has threatened to pull his negotiators out and instead issue executive orders to address the human and economic toll of a crisis that has killed more than 160,000 Americans and thrown tens of millions of people out of work.

It was unclear how much any president could do by executive order. At a news conference, Schumer said the president could not order any new money spent – as that is the power of Congress – but could only defer costs until they were eventually paid.

Democrats have advocated for a $3 trillion-plus economic aid program, while leading Republicans have proposed about a third of that.

“Yesterday I offered to them, we’ll take down a trillion if you add a trillion in,” Pelosi said. “They said absolutely not.”

She said she would make the offer again at an afternoon negotiating session with Mnuchin and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows. “We’ve got a responsibility to find common ground,” Pelosi said.

Pelosi said the proposed $1 trillion cut in Democrats’ plan would mean the aid would run out sooner.

Schumer said the White House would have to compromise with Democrats, because they need Democratic votes to get anything passed by Congress. “They can’t just say no,” he said.

“Their other choice is to do some weak insufficient executive orders that wont do the job for the people we want to help,” Schumer said.

Pelosi said Democrats want the biggest possible number for reviving an expired federal payment to the unemployed that had been $600 a week. Renewing that benefit has been a leading Democratic demand.

The White House at one point suggested $400 a week in federal benefits for the unemployed, but Democrats rejected it and have refused to do a separate deal on that, saying they wanted a comprehensive package that also included money for state and local government and other matters.

Congress passed more than $3 trillion in relief legislation early in the pandemic. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said a new boost is needed to help the U.S. economy, but some of his fellow Republicans oppose doing anything more.

Pelosi and Schumer have pushed for a comprehensive package of assistance for the unemployed, the poor, hospitals, schools, and state and local governments.

(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey, Lisa Lambert and David Morgan; Writing by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Scott Malone and Howard Goller)

McConnell says U.S. needs ‘another boost’ as coronavirus relief talks continue

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Thursday said the U.S. economy needs an “additional boost” to cope with the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, as his Democratic counterparts and White House officials try to hash out a next wave of relief.

As talks neared the end of their second week, the four principal negotiators – a group that does not include McConnell – appeared to be near agreement on some topics, but still trillions of dollars apart on major issues including the size of a federal benefit for tens of millions of unemployed workers.

McConnell said he agreed with Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin that agreement is needed on another aid package, even though some of his fellow Republicans in the Senate do not think so.

“I think we need an additional agreement,” the Republican Senate leader told CNBC, adding “the economy does need an additional boost.” Nonpartisan analysts say McConnell’s Republicans face a risk of losing their Senate majority in November’s elections.

McConnell continued to insist that unemployment benefits in any deal should be adjusted downward and that the agreement should include liability protections against lawsuits for reopening businesses during the pandemic.

Mnuchin was due to join fellow Republican Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, and the two top congressional Democrats, House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, for talks on Capitol Hill at 5 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT).

Others not in the negotiation room considered their own actions, as Republican senators said they had been told that no deal by Friday would mean no deal at all.

Republican President Donald Trump stood ready to use executive orders to address issues such as unemployment benefits and protections against evictions if talks failed, according to Meadows.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio told reporters that the Senate on Thursday could also take up a new version of the Payroll Protection Program that provides financial assistance to small businesses in the form of forgivable loans.

Congress passed more than $3 trillion in relief legislation early in the pandemic. But lawmakers missed a deadline last week to extend the $600 per week in enhanced unemployment payments that played a key role in propping up the economy.

Pelosi and Schumer have pushed for a comprehensive package of assistance for the unemployed, the poor, hospitals, schools and state and local governments.

“The leader and I are determined that we will come to agreement. But it has to meet the needs of the American people,” Pelosi said.

Mnuchin has warned that the Trump administration would not accept “anything close” to the $3.4 trillion in new aid sought by Democrats. Senate Republicans have proposed a $1 trillion package that many of their own members have rejected.

Senate Republicans push back on McConnell’s $1 trillion U.S. coronavirus relief proposal

By David Morgan and Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Republicans in the U.S. Senate pushed back on Tuesday against their own party’s $1 trillion coronavirus relief proposal the day after it was unveiled by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, sending some U.S. stocks downward.

McConnell and the chamber’s top Republicans unveiled the coronavirus aid package hammered out with the White House just four days before the expiration of expanded unemployment benefits keeping millions of Americans afloat during the crisis. The proposal would slash the federal benefit from $600 per week in addition to state unemployment, to $200.

Democrats have also rejected the package, calling it too small compared with their $3 trillion plan that passed the House of Representatives in May. Dissident Republicans criticized its expense.

McConnell touted the proposal as a “tailored and targeted” plan to reopen schools and businesses, while protecting companies from lawsuits.

Some U.S. stocks dropped as investors worried about the resurgence in coronavirus cases and awaited progress on the relief plan. [.N]

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham estimated that half the party’s members in the Senate would oppose the plan.

“I think if Mitch can get half the conference that’d be quite an accomplishment,” Graham told reporters. Graham said he considers this a war against the coronavirus. “You have to spend money when you’re in a war.”

Multiple Republican senators call the plan too costly.

“I’m not for borrowing another trillion dollars,” Republican Senator Rand Paul told reporters.

The Republican proposal would give many Americans direct payments of $1,200 each, provide billions in loans to small businesses, support hospitals and help schools reopen.

The federal supplemental unemployment benefit has been a financial lifeline for laid-off workers and a key support for consumer spending. Democrats quickly denounced the proposed cut as draconian when millions of Americans cannot return to shuttered workplaces.

PARTISAN DISPUTES

Many Republicans insist the unemployment payout encourages Americans to stay home rather than go back to work by paying them more than their previous wages. Their proposal would provide the $200 weekly payment in place until states create a system to provide a 70% wage replacement for laid-off workers.

Democrats said the $200 plan would damage the economy.

“People want to work, Republican friends. They just don’t have jobs to do it. We’re not going to let them starve while that happens,” Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said.

Democrats also want money for state and local governments, which face multi-billion dollar budget shortfalls, with businesses closed and residents out of work.

“Our residents, our businesses, our families, they need direct federal support now,” said Savannah, Georgia, Mayor Van Johnson, one of a group of Democratic and Republican mayors on a conference call with reporters.

Bipartisan lawmakers questioned why funds for some programs that seemed to have nothing to do with the pandemic – such as $1.8 billion for a new Federal Bureau of Investigation headquarters – were in the proposal.

Schumer and Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi were due to meet later on Tuesday with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who had lunch with Republican senators.

The partisan wrangling comes as U.S. coronavirus cases have passed 4.3 million, with nearly 150,000 people killed in the country, and tens of millions out of work.

The Democratic-led House in May passed its $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill known as the “HEROES Act,” but the Republican-led Senate would not consider it.

McConnell acknowledged that the Republican “HEALS Act” was just a starting point for negotiations, and would need bipartisan support to become law.

“The HEALS Act is full of provisions that I would frankly dare my Democratic colleagues to actually say they oppose,” McConnell said.

(Reporting by David Morgan, Patricia Zengerle and Susan Cornwell in Washington; Additional reporting by Lisa Lambert in Washington; Writing by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Scott Malone and Matthew Lewis)

U.S. Republicans to unveil coronavirus aid proposal as time runs out on jobless benefits

By Susan Cornwell and David Lawder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Senate Republicans on Monday are expected to unveil a $1 trillion coronavirus aid package hammered out with the White House, a starting point for negotiations with Democrats as unemployment benefits that have kept millions of Americans afloat are set to expire.

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows told reporters on Sunday that the plan just needed a few clarifications before Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell could unveil it on Monday afternoon.

Meadows and U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said their agreement in principle with Senate Republicans would include an extension of supplemental unemployment benefits that aims to replace 70% of laid off workers’ lost wages.

On Friday, an extra $600 per week in supplemental unemployment benefits is due to expire, severing a financial lifeline for laid-off workers and a key support for consumer spending.

But the extra funds – in some cases exceeding a workers’ former wages – was a sticking point for many Republicans, helping to delay agreement during a week of wrangling over the party’s negotiating position.

Some Republicans had complained about the high price tag; the federal government has already spent $3.7 trillion to cushion the economic blow from pandemic-forced shutdowns.

Mnuchin and Meadows earlier on Sunday floated the idea of a piecemeal approach to coronavirus aid, first addressing unemployment and demands by businesses and schools to be shielded from coronavirus-related lawsuits, while tackling other issues later.

“We are going to be prepared, on Monday, to provide unemployment insurance extension that would be 70% of wages,” Meadows said on ABC’s “This Week” program on Sunday.

DEMOCRATS’ DEMANDS

Democrats decried the Republican delay as U.S. coronavirus cases passed the 4 million mark, a milestone for a pandemic that has killed more than 146,000 people in the United States and thrown tens of millions out of work.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday that if necessary, the House would stay in session until a deal is passed and added that Democrats would not accept a measure urged by Republicans to include liability protections for employers.

“What we will not support is what they’re saying to essential workers: ‘You have to go to work because you’re essential, we place no responsibility on your employer to make that workplace safe and if you get sick you have no recourse because we’ve given your employer protection,'” she said.

Pelosi has said that House Democrats would pursue the $3 trillion coronavirus aid bill that they passed in May, which would extend the extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits through the end of 2020.

The Republican plan will include another round of direct payments of $1,200 for individuals, White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow told CNN. He said it also would extend a federal moratorium on housing evictions contained in previous relief legislation.

Senate aides said the Republican plan also have more help for small businesses, $105 billion for schools, $16 billion for coronavirus testing, and legal protections for business that are reopening.

(Reporting by Susan Cornwell and David Lawder; Editing by Peter Cooney and Gerry Doyle)

Mnuchin says no payroll tax cut in coronavirus relief bill

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said on Thursday the White House is interested in getting a trillion-dollar coronavirus relief bill out quickly and will not include the payroll tax cut long sought by President Donald Trump.

Mnuchin also said the White House was working with Senate Republicans to hammer out language on extending enhanced unemployment benefits that expire on July 31.

Asked whether a payroll tax cut would be included in the proposal being put forth by Senate Republicans, Mnuchin said, “Not in this, but we’re going to come back. You know there might be a CARES 5.0.”

Mnuchin said he and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows would be going to Capitol Hill again on Thursday morning to meet with Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

“One of the problems with the payroll tax cut is it takes time, so we are much more focused right now on the direct payments,” Mnuchin told reporters outside the White House.

“The unemployment insurance – we’re going back up to see the new language and work through that, he said. “We’re not going to pay people more to stay home than to work. So we’re looking at something that looks like a 70% wage replacement and working on the mechanics.”

The Treasury secretary told reporters the proposal being worked out by Senate Republicans will include $16 billion in new funding for coronavirus testing, for a total of $25 billion.

“We’re focused on putting another trillion in quickly, that’ll be CARES 4.0. If we’ve got to come back for CARES 5.0, for more money, the president will consider that the time,” Mnuchin said in an interview earlier with CNBC.

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Alex Richardson and Jonathan Oatis)

White House team to meet House Democrats as talks for new coronavirus bill pick up

By David Morgan and Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. congressional negotiations aimed at hammering out an agreement on a new coronavirus aid package intensified on Tuesday as COVID-19 infections and deaths surged to record levels across the United States.

The Republican-led Senate, Democratic-controlled House of Representatives and the White House have less than two weeks to agree on a legislative package before assistance runs out for tens of millions of Americans made jobless by the coronavirus pandemic.

Negotiators, however, remained far apart over how much money to spend and which priorities to spend it on, as the United States leads the world with more than 3.8 million coronavirus cases and over 140,900 deaths.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows met with Senate Republicans at midday and were scheduled for a discussion with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer later in the afternoon.

Asked if a deal could be worked out by the end of the week, Pelosi replied with a laugh: “The end of the week? You mean the month. I’m hoping for the end of the month.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Republicans would soon unveil a new coronavirus bill that is expected to have a $1 trillion price tag.

He said it would include $105 billion for schools; assistance for small businesses; direct payments to individuals and families; help for businesses to meet the cost of protecting employees and customers; money for vaccines, diagnostics and treatments; and liability protection for businesses, healthcare facilities, churches, charities and government agencies.

Democrats are proposing $175 billion to help elementary and secondary schools cope with the pandemic and have said they are determined to fight for provisions in a $3 trillion bill that passed the House in May and includes aid to state and local governments, extended unemployment insurance and protections for workers.

“An outcome will require bipartisan discussions. I do not believe there will be anything in our bill that our Democratic colleagues should not happily support,” McConnell said on the Senate floor.

Schumer called on Republicans to begin bipartisan negotiations now rather than first produce their own bill. “I urge all of my Republican colleagues to abandon their one-party, one-chamber approach before it’s too late and immediately begin bipartisan, bicameral negotiations,” he said.

President Donald Trump has called for a payroll tax cut to be included in legislation, a provision Meadows described on Tuesday as “a very high priority.” But Democrats, including House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, said there was little enthusiasm for such a move.

Trump is seeking a payroll tax cut ahead of the November election and sees it as a major stimulus for the pandemic-stricken U.S. economy, according to the White House. Democrats have said such a move is unnecessary and could threaten Social Security benefits for the elderly.

(Reporting by David Morgan, Susan Cornwell and Richard Cowan; Editing by Scott Malone, Andrew Heavens, Jonathan Oatis and Dan Grebler)