White House, Congress jockey in looming showdown over coronavirus aid

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump and Republican lawmakers in Congress laid out their priorities for new coronavirus legislation on Monday, while Democrats warned that any partisan Republican measure would be met by unified opposition.

In a meeting at the White House, Republican legislators and administration officials said they were making progress toward a $1 trillion legislative package focusing on businesses, schools and healthcare.

“If you’re looking for a theme here, it’s livelihood protection for those who are trying to deal with the pandemic — people already struggling to keep kids in school, jobs and healthcare,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters in the Oval Office.

The Republican-controlled Senate and Democratic-led House of Representatives have less than two weeks to hammer out a new relief package before enhanced unemployment benefits run out for tens of millions of American workers made jobless by the COVID-19 pandemic.

McConnell is expected to unveil legislation in coming days, and Trump told reporters there has been “a lot of progress” toward a bill. “We’re working and negotiating with the Democrats and trying to get a plan that helps small business, helps people, helps this country,” Trump said.

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But McConnell has yet to engage in bipartisan negotiations, a Senate Democratic aide said.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer warned that his party was prepared to stymie any effort by Republicans to bring partisan legislation to the floor of the chamber. Similar partisan standoffs preceded the last coronavirus bills.

“We will stand together again if we must,” Schumer said in a letter to his Democratic colleagues. “A bipartisan, bicameral process will result in a much better bill for the American people.”

Congress has so far passed legislation committing $3 trillion to the crisis. In the more than 12 weeks since Trump signed the last response into law, the number of U.S. coronavirus cases has more than tripled to over 3.7 million.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who led previous coronavirus bill negotiations with Congress, said on Monday that he intended to “focus on starting with another trillion dollars. We think that will have a big impact.”

But Democrats have pledged to fight for legislation akin to the $3 trillion bill that the House approved in mid-May, which provides hundreds of billions of dollars in assistance for state and local governments, extends enhanced unemployment insurance and provides new direct payments to individuals and families.

The prospect for new legislation was upstaged over the weekend by White House efforts to eliminate billion of dollars of money intended for testing and tracing, in a bid to gain control of the virus’s spread. Word of the move has sparked anger among Democrats and Republicans alike.

“That goes beyond ignorance. It’s just beyond the pale. Hopefully, it was a mistake and they’ll back off it, because it is so very wrong,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told MSNBC.

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