By Patricia Zengerle and David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Thursday said his team was rejecting Democrats’ bid to include funds for the U.S. Postal Service and to shore up election infrastructure in a new coronavirus relief bill, as he vowed to block money to facilitate mail-in voting.

Congressional Democrats accused Trump of trying to damage the struggling Postal Service in an effort to improve his chances of being re-elected in November.

The Republican president has been railing against mail-in ballots for months as a possible source of fraud, although there is little evidence it takes place and millions of Americans – including much of the military – have used the post office to cast absentee ballots for years.

Trump said his negotiators have resisted Democrats’ calls for additional money to help prepare for presidential, congressional and local voting during a pandemic that has killed more than 165,000 Americans and presented severe logistical challenges to organizing large events like the Nov. 3 election.

“The items are the post office and the $3.5 billion for mail-in voting,” Trump told Fox Business Network, saying Democrats want to give the post office $25 billion. “If we don’t make the deal, that means they can’t have the money, that means they can’t have universal mail-in voting.”

The amount of money in question is less than 1% of either party’s current proposed response. Senate Republicans have unveiled a $1 trillion response while the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives passed a $3 trillion bill in May.

Democrats have cried foul, accusing Trump and his party of trying to make it harder for Americans to vote, as opinion polls show him trailing his Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.

“This is an assault on our democracy and economy by a desperate man who’s terrified that the American people will force him to confront what he’s done everything in his power to escape for months: responsibility for his own actions,” said Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates.

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Roughly one in four U.S. voters cast their ballots by mail in 2016, and Trump himself has voted by mail. But Trump and his fellow Republicans have criticized state efforts to make voting by mail more widely available, saying without evidence it could lead to widespread fraud. Election exerts say mail voting is as secure as any other method.

The White House negotiating team of Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Chief of Staff Mark Meadows has not met with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer in six days.

‘CONTINUING CONSPIRACY’

Pelosi said any coronavirus relief bill should include billions of dollars to protect not just Americans’ right to vote but also essential services, like mailing prescription medicines, during the pandemic.

“You would think they’d have a little sensitivity, but so obsessed are they to undermine absentee voting that this is their connection there,” Pelosi told reporters. “So the president says he’s not putting up any money for absentee voting and he’s not putting up any money for the Postal Service, undermining the health of our democracy.”

Democratic U.S. Representative Hakeem Jeffries wrote on Twitter: “It’s now clear. The effort to destroy the Post Office is part of a continuing conspiracy to steal the election.”

A Reuters/Ipsos poll this week showed that Americans blame both parties for the standoff, which has led to the expiration of a $600-per-week lifeline to unemployed people.

New Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, who has donated $2.7 million to Trump and his fellow Republicans since 2017, has ordered operational changes and a clampdown on overtime in a bid to fix the financially troubled Postal Service, which reported a net loss of $2.2 billion in the last quarter.

Cost-cutting measures put in place by DeJoy have led to mail delays across the country, raising concerns that they could complicate mail-based voting. State election officials have scrambled to expand mail-voting capacity as experts say the pandemic could prompt up to half of all U.S. voters to cast their ballots by mail.

The Postal Service in recent months has encouraged election officials to send their ballots using regular first-class mail, rather than the cheaper and slower bulk mail rate that many states use, to ensure ballots are delivered in a timely manner.

In the past, the Postal Service has generally treated all election and political mail as if it were first-class, the service’s internal watchdog said in a 2019 report. That has caused some Democrats to accuse DeJoy of trying to undermine mail-in voting. DeJoy said last Friday that the Postal Service’s approach to election mail has not changed.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle and DAvid Morgan, additional reporting by Andy Sullivan, Jason Lange, Lisa Lambert, Susan Heavey and David Shepardson; writing by Patricia Zengerle; editing by Scott Malone, Steve Orlofsky and Jonathan Oatis)



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