Virus talks on brink of collapse, sides still ‘far apart’

WASHINGTON (AP) – Washington talks on vital COVID-19 rescue money are teetering on the brink of collapse after a marathon meeting in the Capitol generated lots of recriminations but little progress on the top issues confronting negotiators.

“There’s a handful of very big issues that we are still very far apart” on, said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. He talked of impasses on aid to states and local governments and renewing supplemental unemployment benefits in the Thursday night meetings. Both sides said the future of the talks is uncertain. United States (US) President Donald Trump is considering executive orders to address evictions and on unemployment insurance, but they appear unlikely to have much impact.

A breakdown in the talks would put at risk more than USD100 billion to help reopen schools, a fresh round of USD1,200 direct payments to most people, and hundreds of billions of dollars for state and local governments to help them avoid furloughing workers and cutting services as tax revenues shrivel.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif, and top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer of New York emerged to give a pessimistic update about the chances for an agreement.

“We’re very far apart. It’s most unfortunate,” Pelosi said.

Both sides have adopted a hard line in the talks, though the Trump team is more open in disclosing a handful of its proposed compromises. Republicans were late to agree to the talks and have become frustrated by the inflexible tactics of Pelosi and Schumer, who have been exuding confidence in a political and legislative landscape that’s tilted in their favour.

The Democratic pair said the federal coronavirus aid package needs to be huge in order to meet the moment: a surge in cases and deaths, double-digit joblessness, and the threat of poverty for millions of the newly unemployed.

“We believe the patient needs a major operation while Republicans want to apply just a Band-Aid,” Schumer said. “We won’t let them just pass the Band-Aid, go home and leave America bleeding.”

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows on Capitol Hill in Washington. PHOTO: AP