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

WASHINGTON (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 thrown out of work by the coronavirus pandemic.

Lacking a deal, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell maneuvered to stage votes next week on a Republican plan extending the expiring unemployment benefit, but at a much lower level.

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

Meanwhile, former Vice President Joe Biden, who is challenging President Donald Trump in November’s election, joined the fray.

He accused McConnell and Trump of risking further economic slowdown by refusing to grant additional federal funds to state and local governments experiencing revenue shortfalls during the pandemic, which could lead to government workers being laid-off.

“It’s meager support they are offering for schools and local governments. It isn’t close to what’s needed,” Biden told the American Federation of Teachers union.

With little prospect of having to be in Washington to vote on a coronavirus-response bill this week, the Senate was expected to begin its weekend and return on Monday — after the unemployment insurance benefit has expired.

Democrats have been pushing for extending the jobless benefit as part of a $3 trillion coronavirus-aid bill the U.S. House of Representatives passed in May, while Republicans want $1 trillion overall. They have proposed a $200 weekly benefit, which would come in addition to state unemployment payments.

The past four days of private talks involving top White House and congressional officials have yielded no tangible results and much of Thursday was spent with Republicans and Democrats criticizing each other.

“Republicans don’t want this aid to expire,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “But the Speaker and the Democratic Leader say they won’t agree to anything unless the program pays people more to stay home than to work,” he added.

He was referring to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer.

Schumer answered back, saying 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.”

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.

Besides the $600-per-week supplemental unemployment benefit expiring Friday, a federal moratorium that prevented housing evictions ended last week, leaving untold numbers of Americans at risk of losing their homes.

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 a Republican plan to prevent liability lawsuits for businesses and schools as they reopen during the pandemic.

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