WASHINGTON — The coronavirus pandemic is spiraling out of control, earlier relief measures are about to expire, and the big policymakers in Washington are just beginning to have meetings that may or may not result in anything.
You may think lawmakers would be rushing to get another coronavirus stimulus deal, but the reality is that Democrats and Republicans are no closer to one than they were months ago.
Negotiations paused shortly before the election, just as coronavirus cases were beginning to reach new records. Not much has changed. Daily new case numbers and hospitalizations are steeply increasing, and lawmakers are dithering — still hoping that the other side will cave.
On Friday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she hoped Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s pause on negotiations would end.
“We have been working on the omnibus bill and I thought that would be a segue,” Pelosi said, referring to a government-funding bill that has to pass before Dec. 11 to prevent a government shutdown.
House Democrats have now passed two sweeping coronavirus measures, while McConnell has tried to pass his own scaled-down version, which failed to clear procedural hurdles in the Senate.
Instead of negotiating on a compromise, however, lawmakers have mostly stood by waiting for a breakthrough.
Democrats continue to insist, given the record cases and continued economic problems, that a more robust relief deal makes sense. Republicans, meanwhile, are standing by their slimmed down approach — and it’s unclear if the White House wants a deal at this point.
On Wednesday, White House economic adviser Stephen Moore said he didn’t see Republicans “budging on the Blue State bailout.”
“The economy is doing fine, much better than anyone expected,” Moore said. “We think the economy is strong because Trump didn’t go along with a deal.”
And President Donald Trump, who seems to have generally lost interest in performing the duties of his office, may not want a deal that would juice the economy just as President-elect Joe Biden moves into the White House.
Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows are set to meet on Friday with McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to discuss a plan for negotiating with Democrats on a coronavirus deal. But whether Republicans really even want a deal — and how willing Democrats are to negotiate — seems to be up in the air.
While Democrats didn’t win back control of the Senate, they still have the House and will have the presidency. That means they could potentially be in a better position to pass a more sweeping measure in January, once Biden has taken office.
But the Senate could remain a problem.
Without pressure from Trump, Republicans may fully embrace fiscal conservatism, and may hamstring Biden with a sluggish economy, the same way they did with former President Barack Obama.
So there is — or should be — some urgency to get a deal now. If not for the prospect of actually getting a deal, then maybe for the millions of Americans who are struggling under insufficient unemployment benefits and a job market that is still far from fully recovered.
Sarah Brown of Brownsburg, Indiana, is one of those people. She gets $211 per week in unemployment benefits, which ”keeps the lights on and the heat on,” she told HuffPost.
The benefits come from a program created in the major coronavirus relief bill passed in March that added 13 weeks of benefits to the 26 weeks typically provided by states. That extension expires on Dec. 26, and Brown is one of more than 188,000 Hoosiers who will be left hanging.
Nationally, nearly 12 million people will lose benefits if Congress doesn’t act. The extra weeks of unemployment benefits will disappear, as will a new program that pays Uber drivers and other gig workers who normally aren’t eligible for unemployment insurance. Also expiring: an eviction moratorium and forbearance on student loan payments.
In response to every recession since World War II, Congress has granted layoff victims additional unemployment benefits. When lawmakers expanded unemployment eligibility in March, they did so specifically because the virus makes work impossible for some people.
Brown is 36 and has two teenagers at home. She previously worked for a medical waste management company. Chronic abdominal pain from a gastric bypass surgery puts her at higher risk of severe illness if she gets exposed to the coronavirus, and it also limits the kind of jobs she can do, she said.
Still, she’s been looking.
“I usually do 10 or 15 applications a week,” Brown said, “but no one’s calling back because I’m not applying for warehouse jobs.”
If she can’t find a job and the government cuts off her income in the middle of the pandemic, she might apply for Social Security Disability Insurance, meaning she could leave the labor force altogether. Her boyfriend is still working, and she considers herself more fortunate than most, but she thinks Congress is on the verge of screwing up big time.
“It’s going to create an even bigger problem” if they don’t strike a deal, she said. “They kind of have to get somewhere in the middle where they can all agree.”