As Unemployment Aid Expires, White House and Congress Clash on Relief Plan


WASHINGTON — The White House and Congress hurtled over an economic and political cliff on Friday, failing to reach agreement to extend $600-per-week federal jobless aid payments for millions of Americans before their midnight expiration and risking a backlash from voters amid a pandemic-induced recession.

Republicans and Democrats heaped blame on each other for the breakdown, even as they said they would continue to try to strike an agreement on a recovery package that would restore the benefits, which have become a critical lifeline for laid-off workers and the economy itself. But in allowing the lapse, President Trump and congressional leaders in both parties were treading on politically perilous ground three months before the general election.

The relief package under discussion is almost certainly the last chance Mr. Trump has to inject fresh stimulus into the battered economy before he faces voters in November, with his political standing damaged amid widespread public dissatisfaction over his handling of the pandemic. Republicans, whose hold on the Senate majority is under threat, could also pay a steep price for failing to deliver relief to struggling Americans, after waiting weeks to present their own proposal and ultimately endorsing a deep cut to the enhanced jobless benefits.

But the impasse also amounts to a calculated risk for Democrats, who have pressed to extend the full $600-a-week federal unemployment payments through January as part of a sweeping $3 trillion recovery plan. They opted to reject Republicans’ last-ditch proposals for a short-term extension or a continuation of the aid at a lower rate, taking the position that allowing the benefits to expire was better than agreeing to an aid proposal that they considered far too stingy to meeting the needs of a crippled economy and a continuing public health crisis.

“We don’t have shared values — that’s just the way it is,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said. “It’s not bickering. It’s standing our ground.”

Mr. Trump, who has been largely absent from the talks on a recovery package, savaged Democrats for the impasse, saying they were jockeying for political advantage instead of working to find a compromise.

“Democrats do not care about the people of our country,” he said at the White House. “It is a disgrace that they’re not negotiating, but they’re only looking to play a political game.”

As the two sides traded insults from either side of Pennsylvania Avenue, the economy hung in the balance. The pandemic has obliterated nearly five years of growth, according to the latest government figures, which came as the tally of new claims for state unemployment benefits exceeded one million for the 19th consecutive week. Economists have warned that a failure to enact additional federal relief could further devastate American families and permanently damage an already shuddering economy.

Still, a deal to produce such a package appeared no closer.

Senate Republicans waited until Monday — days after workers in several states received their last unemployment benefit payments — to unveil their $1 trillion relief proposal, and even then remained deeply divided on its contents, with many preferring no action at all.

Democrats, who pushed their $3 trillion stimulus plan through the House in May, have rejected Republicans’ efforts to buy time for negotiations with a short-term extension of the unemployment benefits. Sensing that they have the upper hand in the talks given the likelihood of substantial Republican defections, Democrats appear reluctant to offer many concessions.

In the absence of much common ground, the two sides resorted to finger-pointing in dueling news conferences on Friday. Ms. Pelosi charged that the administration officials who had huddled in her Capitol Hill suite the night before had no grasp of the gravity of the pandemic and its mounting toll. Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, blamed the Democrats for the impasse, saying they had rejected four proposals that would have maintained the unemployment benefits for a brief period.

A weeklong extension of the benefit, Ms. Pelosi said, would only suffice had there been a broader agreement within reach and

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