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Trump threatens to circumvent Congress after coronavirus aid talks hit stalemate

The president vowed to try to unilaterally extend jobless benefits, the eviction moratorium after negotiators could not come to an agreement on the next package of coronavirus aid.
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WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump threatened on Friday to utilize executive orders for coronavirus aid after congressional Democrats and the White House hit an impasse over another round of assistance.

"I will act under my authority as president to get Americans the relief that they need," Trump told reporters during an appearance at his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club Friday night.

It was unclear what legal authority the president could claim that would allow him to take the majority of the actions he detailed.

Negotiators on both sides expressed pessimism on Friday about finding a compromise that would allow Congress to pass the new round of aid for people in the United States who remain jobless and to help fund efforts to reopen schools in the fall.

In his remarks hours later, Trump said he would extend federal unemployment benefits through the end of the year, but he would not say at what level or what mechanism would allow him to do so. The $600 weekly payments approved by Congress in April expired in July, and Republicans have pushed to lower the payments.

Trump also said he would reduce the payroll tax — a preference of the president that was roundly rejected by members of his own party in Congress — and said he would both seek to extend a moratorium on evictions through the end of the year and to defer student loan payments and stop interest from accruing, although he did not say for how long.

In congressional talks, the sticking points on jobless benefits and assistance for local governments meant the two sides remained more than $1 trillion apart. Democrats said the lowest figure they were willing to accept would be $2 trillion, down from their initial request of $3.4 trillion.

“That’s a nonstarter,” Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin said in response. Congressional Republicans have made offers closer to $1 trillion.

The president had argued in a Friday tweet that Democrats had asked for extra money for "poorly run Democrat cities and states" for expenses unrelated to the coronavirus. Democrats and some Republicans have said aid for local governments is needed amid a financial crunch sparked by the coronavirus pandemic to ensure vital services like police and firefighters are able to continue operating.

He insisted in his Friday night remarks that despite criticism of his absence from the talks he had been involved in negotiations by staying in regular contact with Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows.

"They’re constantly on the phone with me, I’m totally involved with it and we’re going to do it in a way that’s much easier," Trump said.

The lack of a deal means another week without the boosted unemployment payments. The Department of Labor revealed in the monthly jobs report Friday that the national unemployment rate is at 10.2 percent and indicated that economic recovery may be flagging.

Mnuchin; Meadows; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.; and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., emerged from talks Friday without a resolution. Neither side ruled out returning to the negotiating table.

"It was a disappointing meeting," Schumer said. "They said they couldn't go much above their existing $1 trillion, and that was disappointing."

Negotiators on both sides offered dour assessments of the talks Friday, publicly criticizing each other over the failure to reach a compromise.

Trump first threatened Thursday that if a deal was not reached by the end of the week — a largely arbitrary deadline — then he would utilize executive orders to circumvent Congress and enact the jobless benefits and an eviction moratorium on his own. Democratic leaders have already warned they would file lawsuits to stop him, since the power to fund programs is constitutionally given to Congress.

White House negotiators indicated they have no current plans to meet again and that the president could act on executive orders over the weekend.

"The chief and I will recommend to the president, based upon our lack of activity today, to move forward with some executive orders," Mnuchin told reporters after Friday's meeting.

The two sides have been unable to agree on just how much money should be spent in the bill, a byproduct of their inability to find compromise on the specifics.

Image: U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), speaks next to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks next to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer during a news conference on Capitol Hill on Aug. 7, 2020.Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

“We are committed to negotiating,” Schumer said. “And as we said, we are willing to make compromises," he added, calling the latest Democratic proposal "a very fair offer."

"And you should've seen the vehemence: 'No!'" he said of the White House response.

Schumer told reporters that $2 trillion was the lowest level of aid that would still draw enough Democratic votes to pass the House and the Senate. Leaders from both parties have already indicated they expect minimal Republican support in Congress, necessitating robust Democratic backing.

Schumer blamed the broken negotiations on Meadows, who before serving as Trump's chief of staff led the most conservative group in the House.

“Mr. Meadows is from the tea party. You have 20 Republicans in the Senate greatly influenced by them, and they don't want to spend the necessary dollars to help get America out of this mess,” he said. “Ideology sort of blinds them.”

The greater than trillion-dollar gap remaining between the parties includes their disagreement on the continued unemployment benefits. Congress created a $600-a-week additional payment for people who are jobless earlier this year but was unable to find a deal to extend the payments after they expired at the end of July.

The two sides also remain apart on how school funding should be disbursed. Pelosi told reporters the White House wants the money to go largely to schools that reopen; Democrats want the aid to also fund schools that are unable to reopen and must spend to launch and implement distance-learning programs.