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Trump, GOP suggest temporary fix for $600 jobless benefit

ap photo House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., left, and Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer of N.Y., speak to the media, Tuesday on Capitol Hill in Washington.

WASHINGTON — The White House and some of its Republican allies in the Senate are signaling they want to extend, at least temporarily, a $600-per-week expanded jobless benefit that has helped keep families and the economy afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic. The move looks to be too little, too late to prevent the lapse of the benefit officially on Friday.

Republicans have been fighting to trim back the $600 jobless benefit in the next coronavirus package, but President Donald Trump and some Senate Republicans suggested they could accept keeping the full $600 benefit for now. Late-night talks were expected at the Capitol.

“We want a temporary extension of enhanced unemployment benefits,” Trump said at the White House. “This will provide a critical bridge for Americans who lost their jobs to the pandemic through no fault of their own.”

He added: “It has to be substantial.”

But Democrats have so far rejected a piecemeal approach, saying the next relief bill needs to move as a complete package. Before Trump spoke, top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell adjourned the chamber for the weekend while taking a procedural step that could allow voting on a potential compromise next week. Talks so far have yielded little progress.

“I’m not very optimistic that we will have any kind of an agreement on a comprehensive bill in the near future,” said White House chief of staff Mark Meadows. He said he even doubted a deal could be struck next week.

Talks on the relief bill are at a standstill with few reasons for optimism despite sweeping agreement among Washington’s top power players that Congress must pass further relief in coming days and weeks.

Trump is eager for another round of relief, and it’s also a priority for GOP allies like McConnell, as well as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer. Democrats hold a strong negotiating hand, with Republicans badly divided over their own proposal.

Raising the stakes, a bleak government report released Thursday said the economy shrank at a 33 percent annualized rate in the second quarter of the year, a stark reminder of the economic damage afflicting the country as lawmakers debate the size and scope of new relief.

“This jarring news should compel Congress to move swiftly to provide targeted and temporary assistance to unemployed Americans, employers, and state and local governments, and liability protections for businesses who follow public health guidelines,” said Neal Bradley of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the powerful business group.

But bipartisan talks have yet to reach a serious, productive phase. Democrats are playing hardball, insisting on a package that’s far larger than the $1 trillion-plus measure unveiled by McConnell on Monday. Thursday brought more tit-for-tat.

“They won’t engage. Period,” McConnell said as he opened the Senate. “The Democrats are saying, my way or the highway.”

Pelosi and McConnell have an extensive history, however. They often find ways to reach deals, though the process involves intense maneuvering and plenty of cross-talk.

In an interview late Wednesday, McConnell showed a willingness to consider some Democratic priorities, like additional food aid. He and Trump have made plain they are intent on getting a bill.

“The economy does need more help. We have divided government. We have to talk to each other,” McConnell said on the PBS NewsHour. “And we have to try to get an outcome.”

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