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Trump Officials Float Idea of Narrow Bill to Extend Unemployment Benefits


Top Trump administration officials proposed on Sunday potentially short circuiting free-ranging stimulus talks with Democrats to rush through a much narrower bill prioritizing an extension of federal unemployment benefits that are set to expire this week for millions of Americans.

Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, said he would now like to see lawmakers act this week to extend and alter the unemployment program, give tax credits to businesses to help ease reopening costs and grant employers new liability protections — while setting aside a long list of other objectives, including Democrats’ priorities.

“Perhaps we put that forward, get that passed, as we can negotiate on the rest of the bill in the weeks to come,” Mr. Meadows said on ABC’s “This Week.”

The proposal, echoed by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in his own Sunday morning interview, was a last-ditch effort by Republicans to prevent the program from lapsing as signs mounted that the nation’s economy was once again weakening amid a resurgence of coronavirus cases. But as they prepared to roll out their own more expansive relief legislation on Monday, it amounted to a concession that Republicans, slowed by their own internal divisions, were unlikely to reach a deal on a comprehensive relief package with Democrats before millions begin losing a $600-a-week benefit that has helped contain the economic carnage.

With Democrats already on record in opposition to a piecemeal approach, a narrow fix is almost certainly dead on arrival. Republicans know that, suggesting their Sunday proposal may in part be a negotiating tactic laying the groundwork to blame the opposition party when the funds ultimately expire.

Democrats passed their own $3 trillion proposal — which also includes money to bail out states and cities, fully fund the $600 federal jobless benefit and infuse billions more into the nation’s health care system — in May and view the time pinch now as a problem of Republicans’ making that only gives them more leverage in shaping a final bill.

“We’ve been anxious to negotiate for two months and 10 days,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Sunday on the CBS program “Face the Nation.” She said Congress could not leave town for its annual August recess until a deal was struck and noted that she spent the weekend waiting to hear from the other party and begin talks.

“This is an emergency,” Ms. Pelosi added. “Maybe they don’t understand. I don’t know what they have against working families in America to keep this going so long.”

In addition to a difference in negotiating strategy, the two sides have very different views about how to handle even the narrow set of issues identified by the White House. Republicans are proposing altering the jobless benefit program to replace the $600 flat weekly payments with a plan that would replace about 70 percent of a worker’s lost wages — a change Democrats are unlikely to endorse. And Democrats strongly oppose an effort by Republicans to give many employers new protections from lawsuits from their workers, patients or students.

Even before engaging Democrats, Senate Republicans and the White House have struggled to come to terms on their own $1 trillion proposal. They blew through a series of self-imposed deadlines last week as they fought over how to structure changes to the unemployment benefit system, whether to include a payroll tax cut pushed by President Trump and whether to tie funds for schools to a commitment that they reopen in person this fall.

Mr. Mnuchin and Mr. Meadows now claim to be on the same page as Senate Republicans, and after working through the weekend to iron out details, they now plan to begin unveiling the legislative package Monday afternoon. Formal talks with Democrats could follow, but Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, predicted on Friday that they could take “weeks.”

Even then, Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, predicted on Sunday that months after voting unanimously on the first stimulus bill, much of his party would now be unwilling to support any relief bill. Outright opposition to additional stimulus from the Republicans’ right flank may only further empower Democrats when two-party talks begin.

“Half the Republicans are going to vote no to any Phase 4 package,” Mr. Graham said on Fox News. “That’s just a fact.”

In addition to the unemployment benefits change and liability protections, the Republican legislation is expected to include $105 billion for schools and billions of dollars more for testing, contact tracing and vaccine distribution. Some of the education funds would be reserved for elementary and secondary schools that are reopening and bringing students back to a more traditional, in-person setting.

The bill is likely to provide for another round of stimulus checks to American families, though it remains unclear who would be eligible to receive those payments. Larry Kudlow, the director of the National Economic Council, said on Sunday that the checks would be worth $1,200, though he did not detail who precisely would receive them.

The largest sticking point, though, has been the effort to scale back unemployment insurance benefits. The White House and congressional Republicans largely agree that the $600 weekly payment established in the $2.2 trillion stimulus law on top of state unemployment pay is too generous, in some cases providing recipients more money than they received in their job, and discourages people from returning to work.

“The original unemployment benefits actually paid people to stay home, and actually a lot of people got more money staying at home than they would going back to work,” Mr. Meadows said on Sunday. “So the president has been very clear, our Republican senators have been very clear, we’re not going to extend that provision.”

Democrats, who want to extend the current benefit through the end of the year, say Republicans’ plan would present significant technical hurdles and cut funds to Americans when they need it. When Democrats in March proposed matching 100 percent of a worker’s prior income, Labor Department officials said that antiquated state unemployment systems would make it too complicated to execute.

The National Association of State Workforce Agencies also warned Capitol Hill this week that such a significant change to the current program was likely to take months for states to carry out, according to a memo obtained by The New York Times, meaning that it would take even longer for Americans to start receiving the benefits again.

Even though the benefits program is set to expire at the end of July, workers in most states are already losing access to the expanded unemployment payments. Experts fear further economic turbulence if the program is not quickly reinstated.

After an unusual Saturday meeting with Senate staff on Capitol Hill, Mr. Mnuchin and Mr. Meadows said they also planned to include a number of tax incentives in their bill to help businesses trying to reopen, as well as language providing for what Mr. Meadows described as “manufacturing incentives to make sure we can support American jobs.”

And Mr. Kudlow said on Sunday that the White House was looking to include an extension on a moratorium on evictions that just expired.

“We will lengthen the eviction” moratorium, he said. “We will lengthen it.”

Alan Rappeport and Katie Rogers contributed reporting.

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