WASHINGTON — The two top Senate leaders on Thursday exchanged the most biting criticism yet of each other’s coronavirus relief proposals as negotiations continued to flounder – clouding the prospects of even a short-term deal as millions of Americans confront a sudden loss of expanded unemployment benefits.

In a floor speech, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who released his party’s plan earlier this week, blasted the $3 trillion Democratic plan as a “totally unserious proposal” and accused Democratic leaders of refusing to allow their rank-and-file members to engage in discussions with Republicans. But McConnell has largely extricated himself from the primary negotiations on the next phase of coronavirus legislation, as internal divisions among Republicans weaken his leverage.

McConnell was quickly followed by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who noted that the majority leader said that about 20 GOP senators are expected to oppose any plan and that Republicans had wasted precious time in responding to the economic and public health crises caused by the novel coronavirus, which has killed more than 150,000 people in the United States.

The dueling speeches on the Senate floor appeared to be aimed at setting up political blame as Congress remained on the cusp of failure to reach a deal as expanded jobless benefits for about 20 millions Americans were set to expire Friday. The approaching deadline amounts to a financial cliff for consumers that could send the economy reeling. Republicans have increasingly talked up a potential short-term extension of the jobless benefits as negotiations continue on a larger deal, but Democrats have refused that option.

“The House speaker moves the goal posts while the Democratic leader hides the football,” McConnell said Thursday morning. “They won’t engage when the administration tries to discuss our comprehensive plan. They won’t engage when the administration floats a narrower proposal. They basically won’t engage, period.”

Schumer said Republicans “dithered for months” and then released a “half-baked, halfhearted proposal of half-measures.” He also noted that the main negotiations were among him; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.; White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin – and not McConnell.

“I would remind him, he refuses to go into the room when Speaker Pelosi, Secretary Mnuchin, Chief of Staff Meadows and I sit in there,” Schumer said. “Once again, Senator McConnell engages in ‘Alice in Wonderland’ tactics and speeches and words. What he says is exactly the opposite of what is true.”

The political acrimony also came as statistics released Thursday showed the U.S. economy shrank 9.5% from April to June – the largest quarterly decline since the government began publishing the data seven decades ago.

But the discouraging economic figures did little to move the needle in Congress, as senators instead consumed themselves with partisan bickering and political theater.

A trio of conservative senators, led by Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., took to the floor to try to unanimously pass legislation that would continue the expanded unemployment benefits but reduce the supplemental amount supplied by the federal government to about $200 per week or an amount roughly about two-thirds of an individual’s average wage. A massive rescue package signed into law in the spring provided an additional $600 in weekly jobless benefits, but that provision expires Friday.

“We have two problems: We can’t do a deal because I don’t believe our friends on the other side of the aisle are serious about doing a deal,” Johnson said. “But we have unemployment expiring, and the current provision was too generous and created a perverse incentive.”

That effort from Republicans was summarily blocked by Schumer, who led his own group of Democrats to try to unanimously pass the $3 trillion Democratic coronavirus plan that the House cleared in May. That, too, was blocked – this time by Republicans.

The legislative shenanigans were not meant to actually enact policy, but rather to help further the political blame game as Congress prepared to leave town without an agreement.

“This is too important an issue where the stakes are very high here for lots of families and for our country,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. “And I don’t think people would appreciate elected members of Congress whose job it is to get a result who can’t get a result.”

It was unclear whether the principals – Pelosi, Schumer, Mnuchin and Meadows – would meet again later Thursday, as the House speaker traveled to Atlanta for the funeral of Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who died July 17.

“We still have a long way to go,” Pelosi said in a CNN interview Wednesday evening. “But we’re determined that we will try to find common ground.”


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