WASHINGTON — Tens of millions of out-of-work Americans are waiting to find out whether their enhanced unemployment benefits will be restored. The school year is about to begin, without the promise of federal dollars to ease the challenge of keeping children safe during a pandemic. Clusters of coronavirus cases are continuing to emerge across the country, underscoring the severity of a crisis that will not end soon.
On Capitol Hill on Tuesday, all was quiet.
Technically, both chambers of Congress were present in Washington. The House was gaveled in for two minutes, long enough to approve the journal of proceedings, recite the Pledge of Allegiance and leave until Friday.
The Senate, in turn, stayed in session for just shy of 90 minutes, long enough for the Republican and Democratic leaders to lament the crisis at hand and accuse the other side of an unwillingness to return to negotiations over a coronavirus relief package.
August is typically a quiet affair for Congress: Few want to remain in the blistering Washington heat, so most lawmakers and aides flee for the month, slipping away for a few moments of vacation, stretches of campaigning and, in a normal presidential election year, weeks of convention pageantry.
But five days after negotiations over a relief package between the White House and Democratic leaders crumbled in the Capitol suite of Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, leaving unresolved an issue of overriding importance to Americans, the gulf between the state of the nation and Washington’s rhythms was especially stark. Not only were there few lawmakers present, there were no talks about resolving the partisan dispute, no evident efforts to find a way back to the bargaining table and no apparent sense of urgency at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
“Pessimistic about getting back to the negotiating,” Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said on Tuesday as he headed to open the chamber for its brief day. “That’s the best I can tell you.”
Ms. Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the minority leader, have not spoken to their negotiating counterparts, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, since Friday, when the two administration officials emerged from a meeting and said they planned to recommend that President Trump circumvent Congress and take unilateral action.
“I hope so, but we’ll see,” Ms. Pelosi told a reporter on Capitol Hill when asked about restarting negotiations. “Our differences are vast.”
Mr. Mnuchin and Mr. Meadows have continued to speak daily with Republican senators on a conference call, according to people familiar with the discussions. But without updates to provide on negotiations, the pair on Tuesday devoted time to explaining the implementation of the executive actions the president announced over the weekend, according to one person, which are likely to face court challenges and which several governors have warned could devastate state budgets and provide little permanent relief without congressional action.
Top congressional leaders remain on Capitol Hill, keeping the Capitol architecture in the backdrop of their television appearances and promising lawmakers 24 hours’ notice before any vote on an agreement. But without actual outreach or efforts to speak, there wasn’t much that hadn’t already been said. (Ms. Pelosi, now a fixture on at least one cable network a day, had an appearance canceled on Tuesday because of breaking news.)
The standoff holds risks for both parties less than three months from Election Day. Congress, which saw its approval ratings rise above 30 percent in April and May for the first time since 2009 after nearly $3 trillion was approved for pandemic relief, saw that figure drop to 18 percent in a Gallup poll as gridlock persisted through July, before the breakdown in negotiations on the relief package.
Without some kind of breakthrough, Mr. Trump faces going into the homestretch of the campaign with the economy losing steam, unemployed households losing income and state governments facing budget cuts — all risks to his narrative that the country is turning the corner.
In a nod to the perils of being seen as having failed in its responsibility to its constituents, the Senate has yet to formally adjourn, meeting for just a couple of hours each day to provide the guise of being at work.
On Tuesday, that maneuver allowed both leaders in the self-styled world’s greatest deliberative body the time needed not to deliberate but to assign blame.
“This is not a Washington game,” said Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, who has largely been removed from the talks even as he called for them to resume. “It’s a national crisis. It would serve the nation better if the Democratic leaders would act like it’s a crisis.”
Mr. Schumer, arriving on the floor shortly after, dealt the partisan vitriol right back at Mr. McConnell.
“Facing the greatest domestic crisis of the 21st century, where Americans are hurting health-wise and economically, the Senate Republican majority ran down the clock, tossed up an air ball and then subbed themselves out of the game,” Mr. Schumer said.
There were remnants of the negotiations still scattered around the building, including a lone microphone stand among the statues in Statuary Hall, discarded from stakeouts where negotiators would assure reporters day after day that after meeting for hours, both sides understood their differences — and remained excruciatingly far apart.
Adhering to the adage that Congress works best on a deadline, aides and lawmakers have already begun to note the next one they might use to force compromise: when government funding lapses in seven weeks.