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Week In Politics: Congress Fails To Come To Agreement On New Coronavirus Relief Bill

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

In ordinary times, with the presidential election just 87 days away, we would be inundated, possibly irritated, by ceaseless political ads and stories. Instead, we're months into a pandemic. Over 160,000 Americans have died from COVID and an economic crisis is pushing millions into hardship. We're joined now by NPR senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving. Ron, thanks so much for being with us.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: Close to 5 million confirmed infections in the U.S. A projection from the University of Washington says that another 137,000 people could die from COVID here by the end of the year. Those numbers...

ELVING: That would mean the count - yes, that would mean the count...

SIMON: Yeah.

ELVING: ...After 10 months of crisis would approach something like 300,000 deaths. And, of course, Scott, we know it is not an equitable distribution of mortality, to say the least. People of color, lower-wage-earning workers and their families are suffering the most, several times more likely to suffer the health or the economic effects. And yet, President Trump would like to talk about anything else and continues to downplay the impact and seem unmoved by the evidence. Here's what he told Jonathan Swan from Axios in an interview that aired this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think it's under control. I'll tell you what.

JONATHAN SWAN: How? A thousand Americans are dying a day.

TRUMP: They are dying. That's true. And you have - it is what it is. But that doesn't mean we aren't doing...

ELVING: It is what it is. It is also dealing another knockdown blow to the economy. People trying to decide whether to send their kids to school are, in many cases, struggling with unemployment and worrying about being evicted.

SIMON: And despite the 1.8 million jobs added in Friday's job report, this remains the greatest loss of life in the U.S. in a century and the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression. How can congressional leaders and the president fail to act on a new relief bill?

ELVING: And yet, Congress has, in essence, given up and gone home. Leadership may continue talks with the White House, but right now, there's no public schedule for them. The situation has changed dramatically since Congress approved those massive aid bills in March and April, Scott. We now have half the Senate Republicans, who are the majority party in that chamber, saying in their conferences that they don't think the government should do anything more at all. And that makes it very difficult for their leader, Mitch McConnell, to negotiate with the Democrats, who passed their package back in May, and it was $3 trillion at the time - gone up since then.

The president now says he's going to provide relief directly through executive orders on everything from unemployment benefits to evictions to student debt, but he gave no details or timetable, and the legal effect of such orders is less than clear.

SIMON: I have to ask, too, about what the president's promises for a second term are. Is there a policy agenda? He's repeatedly promised a replacement for the Affordable Care Act. That hasn't happened. This phase one trade deal with China hasn't seemed to have borne much success.

ELVING: No, the Chinese are way behind on the target figures for buying more American products, and it seems we're going in the opposite direction now on China. We're putting sanctions on certain Chinese leaders, threatening to ban their social media platform TikTok. And on health care, last night, the president had talked about the issue of insurance from preexisting conditions. This is what Obamacare provides. And the president's always trying to get rid of Obamacare, so he has to talk about how he would replace it. We're still wondering what a second term of President Trump might look like.

SIMON: NPR's Ron Elving, thanks so much.

ELVING: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.