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White House and Congress still far from agreement on coronavirus relief bill

Chris Megerian, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- As millions of Americans drifted toward financial crisis, the two parties remained deadlocked after weekend talks on another round of economic relief intended to ease the burden of job losses from the worsening coronavirus outbreak.

Administration officials and Democratic congressional leaders spent hours Saturday huddled in the Capitol suite of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) without reaching a deal on extending enhanced unemployment benefits. That relief expired Friday, jeopardizing many families' ability to pay for rent and food while they wait for opportunities to return to work.

Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin said he was concerned about the legislation's potentially multi-trillion-dollar price tag.

"There's obviously a need to support workers, support the economy," Mnuchin told "This Week" on ABC News. But he added, "On the other hand, we have to be careful about not piling on enormous amounts of debt for future generations."

Pelosi, who appeared on the program shortly before Mnuchin, said Democrats didn't want to accept anything less than the $600-per-week enhanced unemployment benefit that began earlier this year. She blamed the impasse on Republicans struggling to reach an agreement among themselves.

"We are unified in our support for the $600," she said. "They are in disarray."

Although Pelosi said some progress was made Saturday, she did not share a timeline for reaching an agreement. Senate Republican leaders were absent from the meeting, deferring to the administration after President Trump called their proposal, which included only $200 for enhanced unemployment benefits, "sort of semi-irrelevant" during a news conference last week.

Trump appeared disengaged from the negotiations, spending much of the weekend on his golf course in Virginia. He seemed to sleep little, however, tweeting repeatedly and mostly about unrelated issues until after dark Saturday and before the sun rose Sunday.

On Saturday afternoon, he again proclaimed his support for a payroll tax cut, a proposal that his own party in Congress rejected and was never seriously considered in the negotiations on Capitol Hill.

Meanwhile, one of his top scientific advisers shared a dire picture of the coronavirus outbreak, which has already killed roughly 150,000 Americans, that contrasted with his own repeated claims that the nation is weathering the crisis well.

"It is extraordinarily widespread," said Dr. Deborah Birx, who leads the White House task force on the pandemic, during an appearance on CNN's "State of the Union."

Although Trump has demanded that schools reopen, Birx was notably more cautious. "If you have high case load and active community spread -- just like we're asking people not to go to bars, not to have household parties, not to create large spreading events -- we're asking people to distance-learn at this moment so we can get this epidemic under control," she said.

Birx wasn't the only member of the administration to contradict the president Sunday. Adm. Brett Giroir, a top health official, told NBC's "Meet the Press" that he doesn't recommend using hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug touted by Trump, as a treatment for the coronavirus.

"The evidence just doesn't show hydroxychloroquine is effective right now," Giroir said. "I think we need to move on from that and talk about what is effective."

Giroir forecasted more tragedy in the near future. "Deaths will continue to increase for the next few weeks," he warned.


Trump recently restarted his regular briefings about the coronavirus in an effort to show the country that he's taking aggressive action, but he hasn't stopped spreading misinformation about the pandemic.

On Saturday, he tweeted his disagreement with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government's top infectious disease expert who recently testified that the U.S. is seeing more coronavirus cases because it shut down less of its economy than Europe did.

"Wrong!" Trump tweeted. "We have more cases because we have tested far more than any other country, 60,000,000. If we tested less, there would be less cases."

Not only was Trump falsely blaming testing for the increasing coronavirus caseload, as he often does, but he also overstated the number of tests. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the United States had conducted nearly 53 million tests as of Saturday.

The U.S. has become the global epicenter for the pandemic, and many countries are limiting American visitors to prevent the spread of the virus. But Trump is eager to portray the situation here as no worse or better than anywhere else.

"Big China Virus breakouts all over the World, including nations which were thought to have done a great job," he tweeted Sunday. "The Fake News doesn't report this. USA will be stronger than ever before, and soon!"

Trump continued to face sharp criticism for his recent suggestion that the election could be delayed. The president does not have the power to change the date, which is set by Congress, and Republicans have dismissed the idea.

Democrats said they were unnerved by Trump's suggestion, fearing he will attempt to undermine the election or cast doubt on the outcome if he loses to Joe Biden, the former vice president.

"I don't think he plans to leave the White House. He doesn't plan to have fair and unfettered elections," said Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), a House leader and close ally of Biden, on CNN. "I believe that he plans to install himself in some kind of emergency way to continue to hold onto office."

Clyburn compared Trump to Benito Mussolini, the fascist leader of Italy during World War II, and said the "American people had better wake up."

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