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Congress Fails To Reach Agreement On New COVID-19 Relief Bill

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

There has been a whole lot of talking in Washington but still no agreement on getting more help to millions of unemployed Americans in this pandemic. A new economic stimulus bill in Congress remains stalled. Congressional leaders met with White House negotiators for over three hours last night, and this is how Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin described it.

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STEVEN MNUCHIN: I think there is a lot of issues we are close to a compromise position on. But I think there's a handful of very big issues that we are still very far apart.

GREENE: OK. We have two correspondents with us this morning to sort through what all of this means, NPR chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley and NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell. Good morning to you both.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So Scott, let's start with the context for all of this because we have fresh jobs numbers out from the government just this morning. What do they tell us? What are you looking at here?

HORSLEY: David, we learned this morning that U.S. employers added 1.8 million jobs in July. In ordinary times, that would be good news, but it's actually a significant slowdown from the pace of job growth we saw in June. The unemployment rate did inch down to 10.2%, but that's still higher than in any previous post-war recession.

And with tens of millions of people still out of work, that slowing pace of job growth suggests a very long road to recovery. We did see job gains in restaurants and retail as some of those businesses reopened during July. But you know, the pace of economic activity has definitely slowed as the number of coronavirus infections has risen.

GREENE: Well, Kelsey, if that's the reality - I mean, if the pace is slowing and you still have millions and millions of people out of work, hoping that maybe Congress can come up with a way to extend these federal unemployment benefits, what is the holdup here? What are the big differences that the Treasury secretary is talking about?

SNELL: Well, they are getting closer on smaller issues. So he did mention that they were inching closer there, and that's stuff like the postal service - money to help prop up the postal service at this time. But those are really peripheral issues to the trillions of dollars of distance between them on big issues. And now, trillions of dollars after 10 meetings is a lot of space in between. We're talking about big things like unemployment benefits but also things like money for state and local governments and food security - so things like food stamps. Those are all still basically unresolved, in part because there's a disagreement about that $600 in additional unemployment, whether or not it's too much or not enough. And that has been a persistent problem.

GREENE: And Scott, there are real-life consequences for this, the longer this goes in Congress. Right?

HORSLEY: Absolutely. For the people who are out of work, their unemployment benefits have been cut significantly. They're a lot smaller now than they were two weeks ago. The extra $600 a week the federal government had been paying through July is now gone. And they're left with ordinary state unemployment benefits, which typically cover only 30 to 50% of their lost wages. So it's a real blow.

GREENE: Kelsey, I mean, the parties in Washington figured this out a few times already. I mean, they had differences, but they came up with relief packages before. What is the difference this time around?

SNELL: Well, one of the big differences - again, trillions of dollars. They've already spent a lot of money. And it comes down to a bit of an ideological battle here between Republicans who don't think the federal government should be the place where all of this money is coming from and Democrats who say the federal government must step in. And you know, it comes down now to leverage and power in a lot of ways. And Democrats are saying that President Trump is to blame for the standoff. This is how Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, described it.

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NANCY PELOSI: The fact is when they showed up last week, it was already too late to save the $600. Understand that. It was already too late to save the $600.

SNELL: She's basically saying that they went in in an intractable position, Democrats saying they had to have that $600 and Republicans saying that they won't vote for it. And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has explicitly said that about 15 to 20 of his members won't vote for any new spending. So any bill has to be carried by Democrats who are unwilling to vote for something that they think will be insufficient, and that's kind of where we are.

GREENE: Scott, the $600 we keep talking about, these were weekly additional benefits from the federal government for people who are out of work - obviously very important in people's lives. But it was money that people were actually out there spending, which was really helping to prop up the economy, right?

HORSLEY: That's right - in fact, so much so that the people who got those extra benefits actually wound up spending more than they had been before the pandemic. And without that support, we could see a big drop in overall demand, and that's a drag on the economy. One way to think about it - in July, we added less than half as many jobs as we did in June, and that was while that extra spending power was out there circulating in the economy. With those benefits now going away, job growth in August could be even slower.

GREENE: Kelsey, anything the administration could do in the interim here while Congress tries to work this out?

SNELL: That is the big question right now. The administration says they're looking at doing executive orders. But it's not exactly clear how they would do it or if they can do it without congressional approval. We do know that they're looking at some sort of order on a payroll tax and potentially something about unemployment. But again, we don't know whether or not this is going to be something that, you know, Congress will accept. They could choose to sue and try to block the executive orders. Right now we're just waiting to see what they will include.

GREENE: NPR chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley, congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell - thank you to you both.

SNELL: Thanks for having me.

HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.