WASHINGTON, DC – APRIL 30: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) wears a cloth mask to cover her mouth and nose to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus during her weekly news conference at the U.S. Capitol April 30, 2020 in Washington, DC. While she and Democratic House leaders are not going to reconvene next week due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she said committee chairs are working on the next piece of economic rescue legislation. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Mere days before a key federal programme for the millions of Americans rendered jobless by the coronavirus pandemic expires on Friday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have ratcheted up their combative rhetoric to full volume.
The personal attacks were particularly brutal on Wednesday as the two leaders appeared as far apart as ever from a deal to stimulate the economy, buttress the health care system, and help get American children safely back to school this fall.
Republicans have offered $1trn in assistance on top of the $2.7trn Congress authorised over four separate deals this spring.
Democrats want something in the neighbourhood of $4trn.
Mr McConnell accused Ms Pelosi of adopting “a completely unhinged position” on unemployment relief, arguing that the current federal programme — which pays unemployed Americans $600 per week on top of whatever their states give them in benefits — has produced a situation where millions of people are making more from unemployment benefits than they were at their jobs.
That system has incentivised people to stay home and keep collecting government checks instead of returning to work, Mr McConnell said, quoting some Democratic officials, such as Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont, who have expressed similar concerns.
The majority leader savaged Ms Pelosi’s opposition to a stopgap bill to renew the programme with modifications before it expires on Friday.
Democrats are only interested in passing a comprehensive bill, they have said, an apparent strategy to maintain negotiating leverage for the final package to include more money for states and cities, election security, infrastructure projects such as universal broadband internet access, and several other projects Republicans have been reluctant to support in previous Covid-19 bills.
“No money for schools, no money for households, no second round of the [small business paycheck protection programme], no more money for hospitals or testing, nothing at all unless we continue to pay people more not to work,” Mr McConnell said, attempting to capture Ms Pelosi’s negotiating position.
The speaker, however, was equally scathing in her criticism of Mr McConnell.
At a press conference introducing a new child care bill on Wednesday, Ms Pelosi implied that Mr McConnell and Republicans’ insistence on getting children back to school in-person so their parents can work means they don’t care about children’s exposure to Covid-19.
“In the Bible, there’s a saying: ‘Suffer, little children, and come unto me.’ The Republicans in Congress give new meaning to that phrase. ‘Suffer, little children’ seems to be something they can tolerate,” the speaker said, citing a quote from Jesus in the Gospel according to Matthew.
A giraffe and a zebra
At a meeting between principal negotiators from each party and the White House on Wednesday, Ms Pelosi likened brokering a deal between Democrats and Republicans to attempting to breed a giraffe and a flamingo.
“They’re both at a zoo. A dumb person may think they could mate for offspring. A smart person knows that’s impossible. That’s our bills. They’re unable to mate,” Ms Pelosi said, Politico has reported.
Even the usually-optimistic Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin — who has served as a go-between for Ms Pelosi and Mr McConnell on previous legislation authorising more than $2.7trn in aid for the pandemic response — had to admit the path to a deal by Friday’s deadline is narrow.
“As of now, we’re very far apart,” Mr Mnuchin told reporters on Wednesday.
One of the few proposals both parties seem to agree on is issuing another round of $1,200 direct payments to Americans, though they must still work out the details of who will qualify and how much extra cash families will receive for each child.
House Democrats passed a sweeping $3trn coronavirus package in May that would send another round of $1,200 cheques to each American and provide an additional $1,200 for each child in a household’s tax filing, up from $500 for each child from the first round of checks this spring.
That 1,800-page behemoth also includes, among several other proposals, billions of additional dollars for state and local governments to respond to Covid-19-related issues.
Mr Trump told reporters he was opposed to “big bailout money” for cities and states.
“It’s a shame to reward badly run radical left Democrats with all of this money they’re looking for,” he said.
Those comments echo previous statements from Mr McConnell, who has pooh-poohed the idea of continuing to subsidise the coronavirus response efforts of states whose budgets were in shambles before the pandemic due to financial mismanagement by their local governments.
Democrats have dismissed that argument as disingenuously political. States have never asked for bailouts to erase their pre-coronavirus deficits, but rather to cover the costs of their Covid-19 responses.
Party leaders’ frustrations over the legislative stalemate and sabre-rattling have trickled down to rank-and-file members.
When a reporter asked Ms Pelosi at the press conference for child care about Mr McConnell’s insistence that the next bill must shield businesses and health and education systems from liability lawsuits related to Covid-19, California Congresswoman Linda Sanchez stepped in with a sharp reprimand.
“I get so tired of everybody wanting to talk about deals and red lines and not talk about what is relevant to the majority of families in this country,” Ms Sanchez said, stabbing her right forefinger into the podium in frustration and imploring someone to ask a question about the child care bill.
“I’m sorry for the outburst, but it makes me so angry,” she said pounding her fist as she vacated the microphone.
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