WASHINGTON: The two top Democrats in the US Congress said on Wednesday (Aug 12) that the White House sought a new meeting on stalled coronavirus aid talks but showed no sign of moving away from the positions it held when negotiations broke down last week.
While suggesting interest in ending the five-day stalemate on talks, the contact did not show either side willing to shift from their rival proposals on aid for tens of millions of Americans suffering from the health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"An overture was made by Secretary (Steven) Mnuchin to meet and he made clear that ... the White House is not budging from their position concerning the size and scope of a legislative package," House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said in a joint statement.
"We have again made clear to the administration that we are willing to resume negotiations once they start to take this process seriously," they said in the statement.
Mnuchin initiated contact with Pelosi just before 2pm EDT (1800 GMT), according to a source familiar with the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
A Treasury spokeswoman was not immediately available for comment.
Earlier on Wednesday, Mnuchin said there may be no deal to reach with Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, despite more than 5.16 million COVID-19 cases in the United States, and described the potential outcome in terms of Republican President Donald Trump's re-election prospects.
"If the Democrats are willing to be reasonable, there's a compromise. If the Democrats are focused on politics and don’t want to do anything that's going to succeed for the president, there won’t be a deal," he told Fox Business Channel.
The global pandemic has taken a particularly heavy toll on the United States, where it has killed more than 164,000 people, more than any other country and made millions of workers jobless, who have now seen a further hit after US$600 per week in additional federal unemployment benefits expired last month.
Talks on a new package broke down last Friday after Democrats offered to reduce their demand for more than US$3 trillion in additional aid by about US$1 trillion, if the White House agreed to come up by a similar amount from an initial US$1 trillion Republican proposal.
Mnuchin described the Democrats' offer as "ridiculous."
Pelosi later said the two sides were "miles apart" with a "chasm" between them and called on the White House and Republicans to "meet in the middle."
"Until they're ready to do that, it's no use sitting in a room and letting them tell us that states should go bankrupt," she told MSNBC. "As a practical matter, they're going to have to come to the table."
Sticking points include the size of an extended unemployment benefit, aid to state and local governments, money for schools to reopen and other issues.
Congress has already approved about US$3 trillion in assistance for families, hospitals, healthcare workers, state and local governments, vaccine research and testing.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who did not join any of the negotiating sessions, blamed Pelosi and Schumer for the ongoing impasse.
"Republicans wanted to reach agreement on all these issues where we could find common ground and fight over the last few issues later." McConnell said on the Senate floor.
"But the speaker and the Democratic leader say nothing can move unless every one of these unrelated far-left items tags along."
A Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Wednesday found that Americans divide blame pretty evenly between Democrats and Republicans.