- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Trump administration officials urged congressional Democrats on Wednesday to come back to the bargaining table to work out a fifth coronavirus relief bill of slightly more than $1 trillion in aid for schools and small businesses.

But the two sides appeared nowhere near resuming talks, after Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spoke by phone. She later accused Mr. Mnuchin of refusing to compromise. He countered that Democrats “have no interest in negotiating.”

President Trump, at an evening news conference at the White House, blasted Democratic leaders for having “abandoned the American people over the simple subject of politics.”

“Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi are holding the American people hostage over money for their radical left-wing agenda that the country doesn’t want,” Mr. Trump said.

The president again criticized Democrats’ push to expand mail-in voting, questioned whether they can carry out the plans without extra coronavirus aid, and called their initial request of a $3.5 trillion package “ridiculous.” Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joseph R. Biden added fuel to the partisan fire, blaming Mr. Trump for taking no personal interest in negotiations with Congress.

“Donald Trump is on the golf course,” Mr. Biden said. “He hasn’t even met with the leaders.”

Four days after Mr. Trump bypassed Congress by signing executive actions to cut payroll taxes and extend unemployment benefits, the White House acknowledged that the president’s steps were inadequate, compared with comprehensive legislation, to help more struggling Americans.

“Let’s do this,” Mr. Mnuchin said on Fox Business. “There are things that we’d still like to do with additional legislation. Let’s spend a little over $1 trillion on areas of the economy that are going to be very impactful now that we can agree on.”

Talks between the White House and Democratic leaders broke down last week, with Democrats seeking more than $3 trillion in aid. Mr. Mnuchin reiterated that one of the biggest sticking points was Democrats’ demand of nearly $1 trillion for states and cities whose budgets have been hit by the response to the pandemic.

Mrs. Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer accused the White House Wednesday of digging in their heels on the “size and scope” of the next COVID-19 relief bill.

“An overture was made by Secretary Mnuchin to meet and he made clear that his televised comments from earlier today still stand: the White House is not budging from their position concerning the size and scope of a legislative package,” they said in a joint statement. “Repeatedly, we have made clear to the administration that we are willing to come down $1 trillion if they will come up $1 trillion. However, it is clear that the administration still does not grasp the magnitude of the problems that American families are facing.”

Mr. Mnuchin said the Democrats’ statement “is not an accurate reflection of our conversation.”

“She made clear that she was unwilling to meet to continue negotiations unless we agreed in advance to her proposal, costing at least $2 trillion,” Mr. Mnuchin said of Mrs. Pelosi. “The administration is willing to move forward with legislation that allows for substantial funds for schools, child care, food, vaccines, hospitals, PPP for small businesses, rental assistance, broadband, airports, state and local government assistance, and liability protection for universities, schools, and businesses.”

The unemployment rate fell to 10.2% in July as employers added about 1.8 million jobs. But job growth slowed from its pace in May and June as many states experienced a surge in coronavirus cases.

“Now is the time to have bipartisan support to help our kids go to school safely, help our small businesses, to help our hospitals, to help rental assistance, airports, broadband, vaccines,” Mr. Mnuchin said on Fox Business. “These are all things that are critical to the American people, as opposed to bickering about whether there’s enough money. Let’s get money to work now.”

White House senior counselor Kellyanne Conway blamed Mrs. Pelosi and Mr. Schumer, saying they “left the negotiating table” last week.

“We need Congress to act,” she told reporters.

The Treasury secretary even offered to do a sixth relief bill after the November elections if more relief is needed.

“This will be the fifth bill,” he said of the current stalled talks. “We can always come back later in the year, or in January, and do a sixth bill. We don’t need to do everything at once.”

Mr. Mnuchin said he “can’t speculate” whether the administration will be able to work out a new deal with the Democrats.

“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 said. “If the Democrats can be reasonable and put politics aside, this will be good for American workers and the American economy, and we’ll continue the expansion.”

He noted that the CARES Act provided $150 billion for states and cities in March, and that the White House offered another $150 billion in the most recent negotiations.

“That’s an awful lot of money, that’s $300 billion to state and local,” he said.

Mr. Mnuchin also said the president wants to cut capital gains taxes, which would require legislation, and to make permanent the deferral of payroll taxes that is set to begin on Sept. 1.

“We’re going to create a level of certainty for employers that want to participate,” he said. [Mr. Trump] will go back to Congress when he wins the election and will ask to have this money forgiven, and to have the Social Security Trust Fund fully topped up so that in no way does this impact Social Security.”

Payroll taxes help fund Social Security and Medicare.

The administration also acknowledging that the weekly federal unemployment benefits of $400 authorized by Mr. Trump last weekend will be lowered to $300 in many cases. A day after Mr. Trump signed the order, the Labor Department issued guidance essentially allowing states not to contribute their 25% share of the extra benefit after many said they could not afford it.

“We are no longer insisting on a cost-sharing deal,” said White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow, calling it a “technical adjustment” to the president’s order.

The president said his orders are “in full force and effect.” But administration officials haven’t been able to give a date when the unemployment payments, which expired July 31, will resume.

• Dave Boyer can be reached at dboyer@washingtontimes.com.

• Gabriella Muñoz can be reached at gmunoz@washingtontimes.com.

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