- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 9, 2020

Democratic leaders on Sunday dismissed President Trump’s attempt to sidestep stalled coronavirus relief talks, saying his executive actions to delay payroll tax payments and extend federal unemployment benefits are false promises.

The party’s leaders fanned out on the Sunday talk shows to question the legality of the moves and insist the only path forward is for the White House to go back to negotiations that stalled out last week.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said on ABC that the president’s Saturday moves were “a big show, but it doesn’t do anything.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, called the four actions “absurdly unconstitutional.

“The kindest thing I can say is he doesn’t know what he’s talking about or, something is wrong there. Something is very, very wrong there,” she said on “Fox News Sunday.”

But Democrats seemed unsure of their next step.

Neither Mrs. Pelosi nor Mr. Schumer said they would challenge the actions in court, and Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin all but dared them to try.

“If Democrats want to challenge us in court and hold up unemployment benefits to hardworking Americans who are out of a job because of COVID, they’re going to have a lot of explaining to do,” he said on Fox.

Mr. Trump announced the moves at a press conference in New Jersey on Saturday.

He said he was deferring payroll tax collections for those with incomes up to $100,000, starting in September; renewing enhanced unemployment benefits, though at $400 a week — down from the $600 that was in the March coronavirus package that cleared Congress; deferring student loan payments and forgiving interest accrued; and renewing a moratorium on housing evictions.

Mr. Trump also said he was weighing additional income tax relief and capital gains tax cuts.

The moves left some Republicans uneasy about Mr. Trump’s expansive claims of power.

Sen. Ben Sasse, Nebraska Republican, compared the payroll tax deferral cut to President Obama’s 2012 DACA policy, when the Democrat claimed power to halt deportations and grant some taxpayer benefits to potentially millions of illegal immigrants.

“The pen-and-phone theory of executive lawmaking is unconstitutional slop,” he said.

Mr. Obama justified his policy on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals by saying he had tried to negotiate with Congress but was stymied. Mr. Trump offered the same justification Saturday for his own executive actions.

Democrats, who cheered Mr. Obama in 2012, were far less eager about Mr. Trump’s moves.

“This is no art of the deal. This is not presidential leadership,” presumptive Democratic nominee Joseph R. Biden said in a statement released by his campaign. “These orders are not real solutions. They are just another cynical ploy designed to deflect responsibility. Some measures do far more harm than good.”

But the president, returning to Washington on Sunday night from his golf club in New Jersey, said Democrats “are much more inclined to make a deal now.”

“It was time to act. … We have to get money out to the people,” Mr. Trump told reporters. “We’ve gotten much of what we wanted without having to give up anything.”

Earlier in the day, Democrats criticized Mr. Trump’s plan to shift some of the burden for additional unemployment benefits to cash-strapped states and warned that the president’s payroll tax halt would siphon money from Medicare and Social Security. The payroll tax funds both federal programs.

Mr. Mnuchin said states can pull their 25% match for unemployment benefits from aid allocated in previous coronavirus legislation. Or, he said, Mr. Trump could waive their share.

“We’ve been told by the states they can get this up and running immediately,” the secretary said.

He defended the $400 level as a “fair compromise.”

Democrats wanted to renew the full $600-a-week federal plus-up, which is on top of whatever states already pay. But Republicans on Capitol Hill suggested $200 a week, arguing that some people are making more money sitting out of the job market than they did when they were working. Republican lawmakers wanted to offer a return-to-work bonus to get the workers back.

Mr. Mnuchin said Mr. Trump will try to make sure Social Security and Medicare don’t suffer from the deferral of payroll taxes.

The secretary said Mr. Trump, if he wins reelection in November, plans to turn the delay into a full payroll tax cut, similar to what Mr. Obama and congressional Democrats approved after the Great Recession.

“He’s going to go to the American people and tell them that when he’s re-elected he will push through legislation to forgive that. So in essence it will turn into a payroll tax cut,” Mr. Mnuchin said. “There would be an automatic contribution from the general fund to those trust funds. The president in no way wants to harm those trust funds. So they’ll be reimbursed.

“We’ll deal with the deficit when we get the economy back to where it was before,” he added.

The president took his unilateral approach after the jobs report Friday showed the unemployment rate dipped to 10.2% in July, far better than 14.7% in April but higher than at any other time since 1983.

Employers added a better-than-expected 1.763 million jobs last month, although job growth slowed from 4.8 million in June.

On Sunday, the U.S. surpassed 5 million total COVID-19 cases, according to the John Hopkins University tracker, with 162,455 deaths and more than 1.6 million recoveries. The U.S. population stands at 328 million.

A recent uptick in cases has state and local governments in some areas struggling to navigate how to reopen safely, particularly with the school year starting.

The high unemployment rate and struggling economy have Democrats and Republicans calling for renewed negotiations for a more comprehensive relief bill that provides for schools to reopen and more testing resources.

Sen. Susan M. Collins, Maine Republican and one of the co-authors of the initial Paycheck Protection Program that gave aid to struggling small businesses, lamented that the program expired on Saturday. Mr. Trump did not find a way to extend that by executive action.

Congress must act quickly. There are constitutional limits on what the president can do to help through executive orders,” Ms. Collins said in a statement.

Talks involving Mrs. Pelosi, Mr. Schumer, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and Mr. Mnuchin stalled Friday after virtually no progress over the course of two weeks.

All sides say they want assistance for schools, some version of extended unemployment benefits and direct stimulus payments to the public, but the overall price tag is a major hurdle.

Democrats put forward a $3.5 trillion proposal, and Republicans offered about $1.5 trillion. Republicans also insist on liability protection for companies grappling with the coronavirus. Democratic leaders oppose that.

Instead, they are pushing for money to help states fund elections, pushing mail-in voting and curtailing states’ voter integrity rules. That’s a nonstarter for Mr. Trump.

Democrats also want to assist the financially struggling U.S. Postal Service, boost food assistance and provide nearly $1 trillion to help state and local governments balance their budgets.

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