WASHINGTON, August 13 (Reuters): Funding for the U.S. Postal Service and to shore up election infrastructure became a major sticking point in congressional talks on coronavirus relief, as President Donald Trump on Thursday vowed to block any money to facilitate mail-in voting.
The Republican president has been railing against mail-in ballots for months as a possible source of fraud, although there is little evidence it takes place and millions of Americans - including much of the military - have used the post office to cast absentee ballots for years.
Trump said his negotiators have resisted Democrats' calls for additional money to help prepare for presidential, congressional and local voting during a pandemic that has killed more than 165,000 Americans and presented severe logistical challenges to organizing large events like the Nov. 3 election.
"The items are the post office and the $3.5 billion for mail-in voting," Trump told Fox Business Network, saying Democrats want to give the post office $25 billion. "If we don't make the deal, that means they can't have the money, that means they can't have universal mail-in voting. It just can't happen."
The amount of money in question is less than 1% of either party's current proposed response, with Senate Republicans having unveiled a $1 trillion response while the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives in May passed a $3 trillion bill.
Democrats have cried foul, accusing Trump and his party of trying to make it harder for Americans to vote, as opinion polls show him trailing his Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.
"I initially was hopeful this wasn't an intentional effort to throw the election. I am gravely concerned given the recent changes in the leadership of the Postal Service that we've seen by the postmaster general, who I'll remind you was a major Trump campaign contributor," Democratic Senator Chris Coons said on MSNBC.
The ability to vote without going to a polling place is especially important this year as Americans look for ways to vote without risking being infected by the novel coronavirus.
The White House negotiating team of Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Chief of Staff Mark Meadows has not met with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer in six days.
Pelosi said any coronavirus relief bill should include billions of dollars to protect not just Americans' right to vote but also essential services, like mailing prescription medicines, during the pandemic.
"The president has stood in the way of any money for the Postal Service," Pelosi said on MSNBC.
When the congressional Democrats and Trump's negotiators last met in person on Friday, they were some $2 trillion apart in their negotiating positions. A Reuters/Ipsos poll this week showed that Americans blame both parties for the standoff, which has led to the expiration of a $600-per-week lifeline to unemployed people.
New Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, who has donated $2.7 million to Trump and his fellow Republicans since 2017, has ordered operational changes and a clampdown on overtime in a bid to fix the financially troubled Postal Service, which reported a net loss of $2.2 billion in the last quarter.