WASHINGTON — Congressional leaders and White House negotiators were discussing a compromise framework Wednesday for another round of coronavirus aid that could include a $400 weekly boosted unemployment payment, according to three Democratic sources familiar with the conversations.
While no deal had been agreed upon, discussions were weighing $400 a week in federal unemployment payments through December, a reduction from an earlier round of $600 payments, according to the sources. It would also extend the eviction moratorium through the end of the year, but it would provide no federal rental assistance.
"I feel optimistic that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, but how long that tunnel is remains to be seen," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters.
White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, however, left the meeting with a warning that the president could upend talks if a deal isn't struck by the end of the week and use executive orders to take action.
"By Friday, if we haven't made significant progress and we're just too far apart, the president is prepared to take executive action on those two items that you're talking about," Meadows said on CNN minutes after he left Pelosi's office, referring to an eviction moratorium and unemployment insurance.
Meadows then appeared to downplay making Friday a hard deadline.
"And so is Friday a drop dead date? No. But my optimism continues to diminish the closer we get to Friday and certainly falls off a cliff, the cliff exponentially, after Friday," he told reporters in the Capitol minutes later.
Democratic leaders and White House officials have been working for days to find a compromise after the $600-a-week jobless benefits expired at the end of July. Meadows and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin met Wednesday with Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
"We made some progress. We still have a lot of significant issues, but we're plugging through," Mnuchin said as he left the meeting with Democrats. "I think it was productive. We had a bunch of discussions about the post office, and we're going to have the staff do some work and meet again tomorrow."
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters that he expected the Senate to return to work next week, cutting into a planned recess, to reach a final agreement.
The framework was expected to include $10 billion for the U.S. Postal Service, which Democrats say represents a compromise from the $25 billion they had initially asked for. Pelosi and Schumer met Wednesday with Postmaster General Louis DeJoy to ask about delayed delivery and how it could affect mail-in voting.
"He had some answers. I don't think we found them adequate, but we'll continue to push for both the money and rescinding those rules that would get in the way of all the ballots being counted," Schumer said.
Schumer arrived at the Monday negotiating session prepared to press the administration on securing a meeting with DeJoy, who had refused several attempts by Democrats to schedule a phone call, according to one of the sources familiar with the talks.
Schumer produced copies of 10 news articles about mail delays from across the country, including one from Philadelphia that found that some people had gone three weeks without packages or mail, delaying delivery of needed medications, paychecks and bills, according to the source. Pennsylvania is is viewed as potentially key to President Donald Trump's re-election.
The two sides have not yet reached an agreement on education funding, according to the two Democratic sources. Divisions also remain around funding for state and local governments and additional money for food assistance, according to two sources.
On Tuesday, McConnell said he expected to rely heavily on Democratic votes to approve a package in the Senate, indicating that Republican consensus was unlikely. Republicans have been split on several provisions, including funding for local governments.
"I'm most concerned about local governments," Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, told reporters Wednesday, saying she hoped a deal could be reached. "I do not want to see first responders like our police officers and fire fighters, as well as our sanitation crews and public works employees, laid off, losing their jobs plus disrupting essential services."