The Senate voted 47-42 on Thursday to begin debate on a House-passed coronavirus stimulus bill next week, in a procedural move that makes it easier to eventually reach a potential compromise that would extend the bonus unemployment benefit while talks on a broader relief measure grind on.
However, the vote meant that the Senate left Washington without extending $600 per-week expanded jobless benefit that has helped keep both families and the economy afloat as the coronavirus pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the country.
Friday's expiration of the $600 jobless benefit sent Republicans controlling the Senate scrambling to respond.
“We’re so far apart on a longer-term deal right now, that even if we said ‘yes' to a longer-term deal you could (have) weeks of negotiation without getting to common ground," White House chief of staff Mark Meadows told reporters.
But Democrats have so far rejected this piecemeal approach, saying the next relief bill needs to move as a complete package. Any short-term jobless benefits extension of less than $600 per week is likely to be a non-starter with them.
Talks on the relief bill are at a standstill with few reasons for optimism despite sweeping agreement among Washington's top power players that Congress must pass further relief in coming days and weeks.
President Trump is eager for another bill, and it's also a priority for GOP allies like McConnell, as well as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer. Democrats hold a strong negotiating hand, with Republicans badly divided over their own proposal.
Raising the stakes, a bleak government report released Thursday said the economy shrank at a 33% annualized rate in the second quarter of the year, a stark reminder of the economic damage afflicting the country as lawmakers debate the size and scope of new relief.
“This jarring news should compel Congress to move swiftly to provide targeted and temporary assistance to unemployed Americans, employers, and state and local governments, and liability protections for businesses who follow public health guidelines," remarked Neil Bradley of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the powerful business group.
But bipartisan talks have yet to reach a serious, productive phase. Democrats are playing hardball, insisting on a package that's far larger than the $1 trillion-plus measure unveiled by McConnell on Monday. Thursday brought more tit-for-tat.
“They won’t engage. Period," McConnell said as he opened the Senate. “The Democrats are saying, my way or the highway.”
Fox News' Chad Pergram and The Associated Press contributed to this report.