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Congress Pelosi
Congress Pelosi
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White House clashes with Republicans over Covid-19 relief

Negotiations over a new Covid-19 rescue bill for the US were in flux on Friday as Republicans butted heads with Democrats and with each other.

The end of a tense week of negotiations was marked by the White House floating a major reduction in an unemployment benefits boost, and by President Donald Trump turning to a new priority- adding money to build a new FBI headquarters.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sent senators home, promising a Republican proposal would be ready on Monday.

Outraged Democrats warned that time was being wasted on GOP infighting as the virus worsens, jobless aid expires and the death toll rises.

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“We call upon Leader McConnell to get serious,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer in a statement.

During a head-spinning week of start-and-stop efforts, Mr McConnell abruptly halted the roll-out of the Republicans’ $1 trillion (£780 billion) plan, which was supposed to provide a counter-offer to the Democrats’ $3 trillion (£2.34 trillion) bill in an opening bid for negotiations.

Mr Trump was forced to abandon his push for a payroll tax break, which his party opposed, and the White House turned to new priorities.

As Republicans struggled, the nation’s infections topped four million, deaths rose by several thousand, to nearly 145,000, and the $600 (£468) unemployment benefit boost for millions of out-of-work Americans was on track to expire.

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As Mr McConnell shut down the Senate, he promised to return with “a strong, targeted piece of legislation aimed directly at the challenges we face right now”.

“This has been one heck of a challenge for everybody in the country. Hopefully we can come together behind some package we can agree on in the next few weeks,” he said.

One sticking point for Republicans trying to resolve their differences with the White House is how to cut the $600 weekly jobless benefit boost that is expiring.

Republicans largely believe the add-on, which had been approved in an earlier aid bill, is too much and becoming a disincentive for returning to work. In some situations, the boost gives the unemployed more money than if they were working. Under McConnell’s plan, senators proposed cutting it to $200 and then transitioning over the next few months to a new system more closely linked to a state’s own payment levels.

An administration official granted anonymity to discuss the private talks said the White House viewed the Senate GOP’s proposal as too “cumbersome” and the $200 boost as too high.

A number of different solutions were being discussed, the official said Thursday, including dropping the add-on to $100 (£78).

Democrats warned time was running out. The benefit officially expires July 31, but due to the way states process unemployment payments, the cut-off is effectively Saturday.

The US registered its 18th straight week of new jobless claims topping one million, with an unemployment rate at 11%, higher than during last decade’s Great Recession. A new AP-NORC poll said half of Americans laid off now believe their jobs will not return.

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The unemployment debate is only one of many issues dividing Republicans as they enter negotiations with Democrats over how best to respond to the prolonged coronavirus crisis and devastating economic fallout.

Mr Trump had been pushing a payroll tax cut, but Senate Republicans did not want to include it because they felt it did little to help out-of-work Americans. It would also pull revenue away from the tax that funds Social Security and Medicare.

The president relented, but the White House also inserted new priorities — rethinking the jobless benefit and Mr Trump’s preference for a new FBI headquarters to replace its ageing J Edgar Hoover Building in downtown Washington, across the street from the Trump hotel.

“This is disarray,” Ms Pelosi said Friday at the Capitol.

Next steps are uncertain after days of closed-door GOP negotiations with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and others.

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