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Trump, McConnell huddle; virus aid talks at risk of collapse

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump huddled at the White House Thursday with the Senate’s top Republican, searching for a way forward on vital COVID-19 rescue money, while Trump’s top bargainers returned to Capitol Hill amid increasing concern that negotiations with Democrats might collapse.

The impasse in the negotiations is putting at risk more than $100 billion to help reopen schools, a fresh round of $1,200 direct payments to most people, and hundreds of billions of dollars for state and local governments to help them avoid furloughing workers and cutting services as tax revenues shrivel.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is a key player in the troubled talks and possesses far more experience than Trump’s administration negotiating team, which is publicly frustrated by the inflexible tactics of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. The Democratic duo has not yielded much ground from an unprecedented $3.5 trillion House-passed rescue package.

McConnell seemed to downplay the significance of the Trump meeting, telling a reporter merely that “we talked a little bit about everything.”

And Pelosi and Schumer were still exuding confidence in a political and legislative landscape that’s tilted in their favor. Trump and McConnell both badly want an agreement, but Democrats control the House and may actually provide the lion’s share of votes in the Senate. The votes, as Pelosi often says, are the currency of the realm.

The Democratic duo has stayed in sync throughout the talks — which they demanded — even reminding reporters Thursday that their relationship dates to Schumer’s time as a hard-charging House member in the 1980s and early 1990s.

They say the federal coronavirus aid package needs to be huge in order to meet the moment: a surge in cases and deaths, double-digit joblessness, and the threat of poverty for millions of the newly unemployed.

“We believe the patient needs a major operation while Republicans want to apply just a Band-Aid,” Schumer said. “We won’t let them just pass the Band-Aid, go home and leave America bleeding.”

After a Wednesday session that produced no progress, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin returned to Pelosi’s Capitol suite Thursday evening to confront the gulf in their negotiating stances. Both sides have set a goal of agreeing on a deal by week’s end — though that is appearing increasingly out of reach.

“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have at least some glimmer of hope,” Meadows said entering Pelosi’s office. “If they’re willing to be serious about negotiations, then we’ll reach a deal. The president wants to get a deal. Hopefully, we make more progress today than we have in the last several days.”

The White House is also promising that Trump will attempt to use executive orders to address elements of the congressional package involving evictions and jobless benefits. But there’s no evidence that the strategy would have much impact or be anything close to what’s necessary, and Pelosi appeared unimpressed at a morning news conference.

“I don’t think they know what they’re talking about,” Pelosi said dismissively.

Addressing reporters, Pelosi and Schumer staked out a firm position to extend a lapsed $600-per-week bonus jobless benefit, demanded generous child care assistance and reiterated their demand for food stamps and assistance to renters and homeowners facing eviction or foreclosure.

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