WASHINGTON - The White House and congressional Democrats traded blame on Friday for the expiration of enhanced unemployment benefits for millions of Americans, which have run out as negotiations over extending them stalled on Capitol Hill.
White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said Democrats had rejected reasonable offers during talks at the Capitol late Wednesday night, and said they "are certainly willing today to let some of the American citizens who are struggling the most under this pandemic to go unprotected."
"The president has been very clear for us to be aggressive and forward-leaning to make sure that they get protected and yet what we're seeing is politics as usual from Democrats on Capitol Hill," Meadows said, addressing reporters in the White House briefing room.
As he was speaking, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was holding her weekly news conference on Capitol Hill, where she derided Republicans for trying to advance a short-term unemployment insurance fix with their backs against the wall.
"What are we gonna do in a week?" Pelosi asked as she explained why Democrats rejected a proposal to extend enhanced unemployment benefits at their current $600-weekly level for an additional week.
Pelosi said such a short-term extension might make sense if a deal were in sight on a larger bill, and more time was needed to complete it. But, she said, that is not the state of play as the parties remain far apart.
"We anticipate that we will have a bill, but we're not there yet," Pelosi said.
Eager to avoid blame for Friday's expiration of enhanced unemployment for some 20 million jobless Americans, Republicans have increasingly coalesced around the idea of trying to pass a short-term fix. But Democrats have repeatedly rejected that approach, and continue pushing for a wide-ranging $3 trillion bill the House passed in May. That bill would extend unemployment benefits through January.
"We put forward what we need for the American people because we recognize the gravity of the situation. They don't," Pelosi said.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., unveiled a $1 trillion counterproposal on Monday, but it was quickly rejected by many members of his own conference, and has increasingly seemed irrelevant as Republicans look to a short-term fix. One proposal they are eyeing would reduce the $600 weekly federal benefit -- which comes on top of whatever state unemployment benefits a worker gets -- down to $200 weekly, or, alternatively, a system that would replace about two-thirds of a worker's previous wages.
Pelosi and Meadows have held meetings for four days straight, along with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. Pelosi said they would be talking again on Friday.
Pelosi declined to say where Democrats were willing to compromise. But she gave a glimpse of her hardball negotiating tactics, saying: "The people you're negotiating with have to know that you'll walk. If it isn't there, it isn't there."
The $600 enhanced weekly benefit was passed as part of the $2 trillion Cares Act in March. At the time lawmakers of both parties had hoped the pandemic would be subsiding by now, but instead cases are back up and the economy is once again showing worrying signs of decline.