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Negotiators Report Virus Aid Progress  08/02 10:30

   Lawmakers reported progress on a huge coronavirus relief bill Saturday, as 
political pressure mounts to restore an expired $600-per-week supplemental 
unemployment benefit and send funding to help schools reopen.

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- Lawmakers reported progress on a huge coronavirus relief 
bill Saturday, as political pressure mounts to restore an expired $600-per-week 
supplemental unemployment benefit and send funding to help schools reopen.

   "This was the longest meeting we've had and it was more productive than the 
other meetings," said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who was 
part of the rare weekend session. "We're not close yet, but it was a productive 
discussion --- now each side knows where they're at."

   Schumer spoke alongside House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., after meeting 
for three hours with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of 
staff Mark Meadows.

   The Democratic leaders are eager for an expansive agreement, as are 
President Donald Trump and top Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Mitch 
McConnell of Kentucky. But perhaps one half of Senate Republicans, mostly 
conservatives and those not facing difficult races this fall, are likely to 
oppose any deal.

   Prior talks had yielded little progress and Saturday's cautious optimism was 
a break from gloomy private assessments among GOP negotiators. The 
administration is willing to extend the newly expired $600 jobless benefit, at 
least in the short term, but is balking at other Democratic demands like aid 
for state and local governments, food stamp increases, and assistance to 
renters and homeowners.

   Pelosi mentioned food aid and funding for voting by mail after the 
negotiating session was over. She and Schumer appeared more upbeat than they 
have after earlier meetings.

   "We have to get rid of this virus so that we can open our economy, safely 
open our schools, and to do so in a way that does not give a cut in benefits to 
American workers," Pelosi said.

   Mnuchin said restoring the $600 supplemental jobless benefit is critically 
important to Trump.

   "We're still a long ways apart and I don't want to suggest that a deal is 
imminent because it is not," Meadows said afterward. "There are still 
substantial differences, but we did make good progress."

   The additional jobless benefit officially lapsed on Friday, and Democrats 
have made clear that they will not extend it without securing other relief 
priorities. Whatever unemployment aid negotiators agree on will be made 
retroactive --- but antiquated state systems are likely to take weeks to 
restore the benefits.

   Republicans in the Senate had been fighting to trim back the $600 benefit, 
saying it must be slashed so that people don't make more in unemployment than 
they would if they returned to work. But their resolve weakened as the benefit 
expired, and Trump abruptly undercut their position by signaling he wants to 
keep the full $600 for now.

   On Friday, Trump used Twitter to explicitly endorse extending the $600 
payment and to criticize Schumer.

   Washington's top power players agree that Congress must pass further relief 
in the coming days and weeks. At stake beyond the $600 per week jobless benefit 
is a fresh $1,200 direct payment to most Americans, and hundreds of billions of 
dollars in other aid to states, businesses and the poor, among other elements.

   Democrats hold a strong negotiating hand --- exploiting GOP divisions --- 
and they are expected to deliver a necessary trove of votes.

   The COVID package will be the fifth legislative response to the pandemic and 
could well be the last one before the November election. The only other 
must-pass legislation on the agenda is a stopgap spending measure that should 
advance in September.

   Since May, Republicans controlling the Senate had kept the relief 
negotiations on "pause" in a strategy aimed at reducing its price tag. But as 
the pandemic surged back over the summer --- and as fractures inside the GOP 
have eroded the party's negotiating position --- Republicans displayed some 
greater flexibility.

   Even with signs of progress in the talks, the list of items to negotiate 
remains daunting.

   McConnell's must-have item is a liability shield from lawsuits for 
businesses, schools, and charities that reopen as the pandemic goes on. The 
GOP's business allies are strong backers but the nation's trial lawyers retain 
considerable clout in opposition. A compromise is probably a challenging but 
necessary part of a final deal.

   Among the priorities for Democrats is a boost in food stamp benefits. 
Republicans added $20 billion for agribusinesses but no increase for food stamp 
benefits in their $1 trillion proposal. Meadows played a role in killing an 
increase in food aid during talks on the $2 trillion relief bill in March, but 
Pelosi appears determined. The food stamp increases, many economists say, 
provide an immediate injection of demand into the economy in addition to 
combating growing poverty.

   Food aid was the first item Pelosi mentioned in a letter to fellow Democrats 
apprising them of the progress.

   "This is a very different kind of negotiation, because of what is at stake. 
Millions of children are food insecure, millions of families are at risk of 
eviction, and for the nineteenth straight week, over 1 million Americans 
applied for unemployment insurance," Pelosi said.

 
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