Congressional Democrats, White House set for Saturday talks on coronavirus bill

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WASHINGTON – The top Democrats in Congress were to meet Saturday with two top Trump aides to try to reach a deal to pump more money into the U.S. economy to ease the coronavirus’ heavy toll, after an essential lifeline for millions of unemployed Americans expired.

Congress for the past several months has been unable to reach an accord for a next round of coronavirus relief, in a pandemic that has killed more than 150,000 Americans and brought on the sharpest economic collapse since the Great Depression.

U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer were to meet with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows beginning at about 9 a.m. EDT (1300 GMT) at the Capitol, according to an aide familiar with the planning.

Congress has so far agreed on about $3 trillion in coronavirus relief.

Pelosi on Friday said she rejected an offer by Republican President Donald Trump’s administration to continue the $600 payments for another week, saying such a move would only make sense “if you are on a path” toward a deal.

“We’re not,” Pelosi told a news conference.

White House officials took their own hard line, accusing Democrats of refusing Trump’s proposals to extend the jobless benefit and a moratorium on home evictions that expired last week.

“What we’re seeing is politics as usual from Democrats on Capitol Hill,” Meadows – a former Republican House member – told reporters.

The House in May passed a $3 trillion deal that addressed a wide range of coronavirus responses, including more money for testing, for elections and support to financially strapped state and local governments.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Monday unveiled his own $1 trillion package, which met immediate resistance both from Democrats, who called it too small, and from members of his own party, who said it was too costly.

Trump, scrambling to prop up a struggling U.S. economy as he runs for re-election in November, has been pushing for another bill.

In a meeting on Thursday night between top White House officials and congressional Democratic leaders, negotiations focused on an extension of the $600 per week in federal unemployment benefits, which Americans who lost jobs because of the health crisis have been receiving in addition to state jobless payments.

According to a person familiar with the closed-door negotiations, the White House proposed continuing the $600 weekly unemployment payment for one week, which Pelosi and Schumer rejected. The White House then proposed reducing the $600 weekly payment to $400 for the next four months. While that was a move toward Democrats’ demands, the source said they rejected it as insufficient.

The source, who asked not to be identified, said the White House also hinted it could embrace a deal without the legal protections from lawsuits for companies and schools that McConnell has said must be included.

On Thursday, Senate Republicans tried, without success, to pass a bill reducing the jobless benefit to $200 per week.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan, Susan Heavey and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Scott Malone and Tom Brown)

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