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U.S. jobless benefit at risk as Congress coronavirus talks stalled

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. congressional Republicans and Democrats, struggling to reach a deal to provide more aid to those hurt by the coronavirus pandemic, slid on Wednesday toward letting a $600-per-week unemployment benefit lapse when it expires this week.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, left, and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows speak to reporters in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S. July 29, 2020. REUTERS/Erin Scott

High-ranking Trump administration officials met privately with lawmakers from both parties to see if they can bridge vast differences over the enhanced unemployment benefit and a host of other issues including a moratorium on evictions that expired last Friday.

Despite the day of meetings, there was little apparent progress on legislation to ease the impact of a pandemic that has killed 150,000 Americans and thrown tens of millions out of work.

“Our Republican friends don’t seem to come close to meeting the moment,” Senator Chuck Schumer, the Senate’s Democratic leader, told reporters after he and House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi met with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows.

“They have no coherent plan, they have no comprehensive plan,” Schumer said.

Senator John Thune, the No. 2 Senate Republican, said lawmakers might have a better idea by the end of this week on whether there is a chance for a deal so “that we could actually get to a package by the end of next week.”

Earlier on Wednesday, Republican President Donald Trump said he was in no hurry to act despite the tight deadlines.

“We’re so far apart, we don’t care. We really don’t care,” Trump told reporters as he departed the White House for a trip to Texas, blaming Democrats.

While some Republicans talked about the need for a stopgap extension of the enhanced unemployment benefit, Pelosi said she opposed doing that or leaving behind other initiatives important to Democrats.

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“We have to have a comprehensive, full bill,” Pelosi said.

‘FAR FROM AN AGREEMENT’

Mnuchin said there was a “subset of issues” on which all sides agree, including more personal protective equipment for healthcare workers and increased funds for education.

“But overall, we’re far from an agreement,” he said, adding that Trump is focused on the unemployment benefit, without providing details.

The amount of support for a short-term extension of the unemployment benefit was unclear because most Senate Republicans adamantly oppose the $600 supplement.

Mnuchin and Meadows said they planned more meetings with lawmakers on Thursday.

On Monday, Senate Republican leaders rolled out a $1 trillion package of proposals that some in their own party have criticized as too expensive. Democrats rejected the new proposal as inadequate compared with the $3 trillion plan the House passed in May.

Amid the legislative infighting, Republican Representative Louie Gohmert, a Trump ally who has balked at wearing a mask, said he had tested positive for COVID-19.

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Congress has so far passed more than $3 trillion in funding intended to ease the pandemic’s heavy human and economic toll.

Democrats want to extend the $600 jobless benefit for several more months. Republicans, arguing that it discourages workers from seeking employment, have proposed temporarily reducing the federal payment to $200 a week, on top of state unemployment benefits.

Other major issues at play: a Republican plan to prevent liability lawsuits against reopening businesses and schools, more money for testing and a Democratic-led push for aid to state and local governments so they can avoid massive layoffs as tax revenues dwindle.

Trump also wants any legislation to include $1.8 billion to build a new FBI headquarters in Washington.

Members of both parties object. Democrats say Trump is trying to protect his Washington hotel, which is across the street from the FBI. Some Republicans said they want coronavirus aid to focus on the health crisis.

Reporting by Patricia Zengerle, Susan Cornwell and David Morgan; Additional reporting by Alexandra Alper; Writing by Richard Cowan and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Scott Malone, Peter Cooney, Jonathan Oatis and Cynthia Osterman

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