• Politics
  • Congress

Coronavirus Relief Package Negotiations Stall as Unemployment Benefits Officially Expire

5 minute read

Senate Republicans moved forward with a plan to set up votes on extending lapsed supplemental unemployment insurance with President Donald Trump’s endorsement, as talks on a broader pandemic relief package made little progress.

The GOP gambit is almost certain to fail in the face of opposition from Democrats in the Senate and House, who say the jobless measure must be part of comprehensive stimulus legislation. But it will give Senate Republicans a chance to go on the record as saying they tried to act as supplemental jobless aid for millions of Americans expired.

Hours after the Senate action, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer met with Schumer, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows for the fourth time this week.

“On certain issues we made progress, on certain issues we’re still very far apart,” Mnuchin said after the meeting, adding that talks would continue Friday and Saturday. “As long as it takes to get this done.”

The Democrats were more negative in their assessment of the meeting, with Pelosi describing the GOP goal of a short-term extension of unemployment assistance as “worthless” unless the parties were working on something bigger.

“We just don’t think they really understand the gravity of the problem,” Schumer said.

Trump said at a White House briefing Thursday afternoon that Congress should at least temporarily extend the supplemental benefit because it would be “great for our country and it’s great for our workers.” He also urged lawmakers to extend a moratorium on evictions.

Meadows said separately that the administration could back temporarily extending the payments at the current $600-a-week level.

Democratic Votes Needed

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Thursday used a procedural move in the Republican-led Senate to open debate on a 47-42 vote. It isn’t clear which of several competing GOP proposals on unemployment insurance might ultimately get votes next week.

However, McConnell would need Democratic votes to pass any legislation, and right now that is unlikely to happen.

On the Senate floor on Thursday, McConnell faulted Democrats for their intransigence in talks with the Trump administration on a comprehensive bill that have brought the expanded unemployment benefits to the brink of lapsing.

”They want jobless aid to expire tomorrow, period,” McConnell said. “If that is their position, they will have to vote on for the entire country to see.”

In response to McConnell, Schumer accused the GOP of participating in a stunt instead of negotiations, saying the “disunity, dysfunction of this Republican caucus” created the situation of having no agreement before people start losing benefits.

Utah Republican Senator Mitt Romney and others have presented versions of a so-called skinny bill designed to keep millions of unemployed Americans from going entirely without the additional support they’ve counted on since the stimulus package enacted in March.

Romney has proposed a three-month extension of unemployment benefits that would give states the option of an 80% wage replacement or $500 a week in August, $400 a week in September, and $300 a week in October.

The plan, endorsed by endangered Senate Republicans Susan Collins of Maine and Martha McSally of Arizona, would also give states $2 billion to update their unemployment systems, which have been swamped during the Covid-19 pandemic and are often using outdated computers.

Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin earlier Thursday proposed a $200 a week benefits enhancement in a move that was rejected by Senate Democrats as insufficient. The Johnson plan, backed by Indiana GOP Senator Mike Braun, would give states the option of providing the supplemental benefit at two-thirds of a prior wage, up to a cap of $500.

Inter-Related Elements

Passage of any measure would require 60 votes under Senate rules and the Republicans have only 53.

Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, said Democrats continue to have concerns about pulling out a piece of the stimulus measure.

“We’ve made it clear that we think that the pieces are inter-related because we’re concerned about how working families are going to pay rent and buy groceries,” Wyden said.

The debate comes amid grim economic news. Gross domestic product shrank at an annualized pace of 32.9% in the second quarter, the steepest decline in records going back to 1947, the Commerce Department said. A separate report on Thursday showed the number of Americans filing initial claims for unemployment benefits increased for a second straight week.

The two sides have to bridge significant differences between the $1 trillion stimulus plan the GOP released Monday and the $3.5 trillion package House Democrats passed in May.

The biggest roadblocks remained McConnell’s plan to shield employers against lawsuits stemming from Covid-19 infections, and Democrats’ drive to maintain $600-a-week supplemental unemployment payments and provide $1 trillion in aid to state and local governments.

(Updates with Mnuchin, Pelosi and Schumer comments starting in fourth paragraph.)

–With assistance from Skylar Woodhouse, Erik Wasson and Jordan Fabian.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com