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House Majority Leader On Coronavirus Relief Bill

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Governors are blaming Congress. Congressional leaders, especially Democrats, are blaming the White House. Well, whoever is to blame, there is no dispute. A bipartisan deal on economic relief for Americans enduring the coronavirus pandemic - it is nowhere in sight. Negotiations fell apart this past weekend, so what might it take to get lawmakers back to the table? And why - with millions of Americans desperate for help, why has this proven so hard? Questions I'm going to put in a moment to one of the senior lawmakers on Capitol Hill, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. First, I want our congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell to join us and set the stage.

Hey, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hi there.

KELLY: So let's open the curtains on this, I think fair to call it, tragedy of a plan where it stands. Is the effort for COVID relief totally dead? What would it take to kickstart these talks again?

SNELL: Well, things are totally stalled as far as we know. We've seen a lot of public sparring between Democrats and Republicans on TV and in interviews, but we have not seen a lot of negotiating. The issues still are the same. There are differences over how much should be spent in total, how much should be spent on unemployment benefits - in particular, those $600 a week in additional payments that expired at the end of July. And there are considerable disagreements about that money for state and local governments. And with the president stepping in over the weekend with executive orders on the unemployment insurance and a number of other things, it has taken some of the wind out of the sails of the conversation, though both sides say they would like to get a deal.

KELLY: All right. That is Kelsey Snell, and I want you to stay with us as we listen to this next conversation and bring in, as I mentioned, one of the key players in where everything is headed. Democrat Steny Hoyer of Maryland - he's the House majority leader. He's with us now.

Congressman, welcome.

STENY HOYER: Thank you, Mary Louise. Good to be with you.

KELLY: So you just heard Kelsey describe the efforts here as totally stalled. Do you agree? Are you still trying to get to a deal, or have you all given up?

HOYER: I don't agree to this extent. Totally stalled would imply that neither side wants to get together and make a deal. Both sides, in my opinion, believe that we need to act. I know that we do. I know that we want to get to a place where we can reach agreement on so many of these items - states testing, direct payments to families and people, medical, elections money - we have an election coming up - education - we want to get the schools open, et cetera, et cetera.

KELLY: A whole lot of sticking points, yeah.

HOYER: Yeah.

KELLY: Let me focus you on one key one that Kelsey Snell raised there - the $600 per week...

HOYER: Right.

KELLY: ...For people out of work because of the pandemic. The benefit is now expired. This affects so many Americans. I want to play just the voice of one of them. This is a woman named Sandy Villatoro. She's the mom of two. She was laid off from her job as a hotel housekeeper in Phoenix. She lost that $600 a month. She came on the show last week, and she told us she is now worried she's going to lose her home.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SANDY VILLATORO: I've stayed up nights hoping that some miracle will come that I don't have to resort to that. I hate asking for help. I hate asking for hands-out (ph). But it's something I need at the current moment, and my kids need it.

KELLY: Congressman, would you respond to that? How do you explain to Sandy and the millions like her who really needed that money why Congress failed to reach a deal here?

HOYER: Well, let me say what I would not say. When the president was asked a similar question, not specifically, but he said, it is what it is. It is what it should not be. Three months ago, Mary Louise, we passed legislation which would have made sure that that woman did not lose her support. That should not have happened.

KELLY: Understood. But you all have been trying for weeks now.

HOYER: Yeah.

KELLY: And I'm talking about Democrats and Republicans on the Hill. It's up to you to pass this money, and you didn't manage to get it done.

HOYER: You're right. We don't control the United States Senate. McConnell's response was, let the states go bankrupt. Secretary Mnuchin and Speaker Pelosi, on four different occasions, reached a deal. We should have been able to do that this time. There's one difference. Mr. Meadows is in the room.

KELLY: Talking about Mark Meadows, White House chief of staff. Go on.

HOYER: Mark Meadows, who is the president's chief of staff and used to serve in the House of Representatives. I don't know why we haven't been able to reach the agreement. I do know we're willing to compromise. That's the nature of this business.

KELLY: If I can just hold you there - forgive me for jumping in, but you said you're willing to compromise. Republicans say they were willing to compromise. In fact, they pushed for $400 instead of the $600. Isn't $400 better than $0?

HOYER: They look at that aspect of it. A third of this bill is for state and local governments and territories and tribal governments who are hemorrhaging revenues, who are on the frontlines of both keeping the economy going and on the frontlines of fighting the coronavirus. Without the states' viable, you're going to lose teachers. You're going to lose health care workers. You're going to lose sanitation workers - people who are absolutely essential. So the 400-, $600 - I think that could be discussed in a positive way. But again, I want to make the point, not because I think, you know, it gets us off the hook - we need to get an agreement. But the House passed legislation which would have given that woman relief, and the Senate did not do anything with it.

KELLY: I suppose the overarching question is this, Congressman. I hear you criticizing the White House. I hear you criticizing that the Senate isn't getting stuff done. But, you know, to Americans out there who are suffering, they're saying, look; we don't care. Washington, sort it out. Congress, just help. And we need it. We need it now. What do you say to them?

HOYER: What I say is, the way the process works - and the American people know this - is the House does its job. The Senate does its job. You go into conference, and you work it out. The problem is the Senate has not passed anything.

KELLY: Yeah. I mean, you're describing a very familiar logjam. Should we have hope that it will break?

HOYER: Let me tell you, it is very frustrating for us, Mary Louise, because we did our job. And we're prepared to understand. And I think, again, the reason I point out the four deals that we made - they weren't exactly what we wanted, but we did it. Now we've reached a logjam. What's the difference? Mr. Meadows is in the mix. And I think the president, of course, you know, is ultimately responsible, and the president ought to direct Mr. Meadows to go back to the table, reach a deal in between. Obviously, I have to take care of unemployment, but you need to take care of nutritional. You need to take care of testing and evaluation. You need to take care of health, and you need to take care of direct payments. So I don't think we're being unreasonable in saying, you've got to have some investment in these objectives.

KELLY: Congressman, many thanks for your time. We appreciate it.

HOYER: You bet. Thanks a lot.

KELLY: That's House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland. And listening along with us, we still have NPR's Kelsey Snell. Kelsey, let me bring you back in. I was struck, among other things, by the sense of frustration. I mean, it was palpable in his voice. That appears to be one thing, one rare thing, that is bipartisan in all of this.

SNELL: Yeah, absolutely. I think the frustration is clear from Democrats, from Republicans. It's also clear that lawmakers are frustrated - who aren't in the room - because they're watching these negotiations happen largely just between two negotiators from the White House, and that's Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, and Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, and then just two Democrats - that's Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. That is four people in the room negotiating a package this large, and there is a sense of frustration and kind of helplessness among a lot of people in Washington who think that a package is necessary, and it needs to get done sooner rather than later.

KELLY: NPR's Kelsey Snell, thanks so much for that context and for your reporting.

SNELL: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF TANGERINE DREAM, WOODY JACKSON, THE ALCHEMIST, OH NO & DJ SHADOW'S "LOS SANTOS AT NIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.