WASHINGTON — As the extra $600 in unemployment benefits expire on Saturday, talks between the White House and congressional leaders on extending all or a portion of it have devolved into an orgy of finger-pointing.
The Senate left town on Thursday after a lot of drama and no meaningful progress toward reaching consensus on an extension. With his Republican conference sharply divided on the issue, all Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky could do was set up a legislative vehicle in case a deal comes together next week.
House Democrats passed a bill in May that, among many other responses to the coronavirus pandemic, would extend the additional $600 a week from the federal government until the end of the year. But Senate Republicans dismissed that $3 trillion bill, calling it a “socialist Democrat dream.” Instead, they hit the brakes on passing further aid until a week before the ending of the extra jobless aid.
Negotiations between top congressional Democrats and White House officials haven’t gone anywhere, despite four rounds of talks on Capitol Hill. And instead of trying to find some consensus to avoid a lapse in the unemployment benefits, leaders from both parties are now selectively leaking information about negotiations to make the other side look worse.
The most recent controversy involves an offer that was never really made. In a meeting with congressional leaders and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin on Thursday, the Trump administration floated the idea of a one-week extension of the $600 benefits so that both sides could continue negotiating. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) rejected the temporary offer out of hand.
That led Meadows to ask a rhetorical question: Would Democrats turn down a four-month extension at $600?
According to senior aides from both parties, that question wasn’t meant as a serious offer. But it was noteworthy to Republicans that Pelosi still said no to the four-month extension because Democrats want a broader relief package — just as it’s perhaps noteworthy that Meadows asked a “rhetorical question” like that during negotiations.
The idea of continuing benefits for a single week, meanwhile, assumes state workforce agencies can implement a federal policy change without multiple weeks of delay, which they have proven they can’t.
With the extra benefits suddenly disappearing for more than 25 million people, both parties are aiming to blame the other for the failure to extend at least some of the money.
“I think the Democrats are willing to allow the enhanced unemployment to expire, they’ve made that very clear,” Meadows told reporters after Thursday’s session. “So I’m not very optimistic on anybody who’s counting on enhanced unemployment to have any relief anytime soon.”
Meadows separately told HuffPost on Friday that he thought Democrats believed this would end with the President agreeing to their bill — an assertion he said he thought was entirely wrong.
But Democrats seem to think the unemployment benefits are the key to a larger deal that includes money for state and local governments, another round of stimulus checks, and more money to address the health crisis — and they don’t see a major need to reduce the $600 a week benefit, like many Republicans do.
Indeed, several GOP lawmakers told HuffPost this week that, ideally, Congress wouldn’t approve a single dollar more — let alone $600 a week.
A Senate Republican bill would have provided $200 a week until states could calculate benefits equal to 70% of an unemployed person’s former income, up to $500 a week. McConnell’s top priority in that bill, however, has been blocking coronavirus-related lawsuits with a provision that, among other things, would empower the U.S. Attorney General to prosecute anyone who so much as sends a letter demanding compensation for reckless exposure to the virus..
But with so many Republicans opposed to extra jobless pay — concerned that they would be disincentivizing work and inflating the unemployment rate — and with Democrats opposed to skimpier benefits, that proposal was dead on arrival.
“The Republicans said they wanted to take a pause. Well, the virus didn’t,” Pelosi said Friday, pressing her case that Congress needed to pass more aid. “Their delay, their denials, their distortions have caused death.”
The extra aid for the jobless is unprecedented, as Congress has never piled hundreds of dollars on top of weekly unemployment compensation, which is funded by state governments. And the number of people receiving the benefits is also unprecedented, as the U.S. has never deliberately shut down wide swaths of its economy to stop the spread of a deadly virus.
Without the extra $600, benefit cuts will range from 50% to 85%, according to The Century Foundation, a liberal think tank. Because so many people are losing so much income at once, the broader economy could suffer.
From March through June, work incomes fell by 4.1%, but thanks to unemployment benefits overall incomes rose 5.4%, according to an analysis of recent data by former Treasury economist Ernie Tedeschi.
Shari Barnes, 61, of Wichita, Kansas, said her state benefit is $293. The extra $600 has helped her take care of her son and daughter, who are also unemployed but not receiving benefits.
“It will get tougher,” she said. “I’m going to be able to do it, most likely, but it will be tougher.”
Barnes is a substitute teacher. She can’t stand hearing from Republicans that the extra benefits supposedly make workers lazy while a deadly plague stalks the nation.
“It’s okay to give us extra money right now,” Barnes said. “We’re surviving. We’re not thriving. We’re not going out and buying new cars or getting new houses. We’re staying safe.”
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