Senate rejects dueling coronavirus bills as unemployment cliff looms

The Senate on Thursday rejected two competing proposals for coronavirus relief as the deadline for extending enhanced unemployment benefits looms and Congress struggles to break an impasse over a fifth stimulus bill.

The floor drama comes as the $600 federal boost to unemployment benefits passed as part of the March bill is set to expire on Friday with no consensus in Congress about how to replace it.  

Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Mike Braun (R-Ind.) tried to pass a bill that would tie overall unemployment benefits to a two-thirds match to an individual’s previous wages, with the per week federal payment capped at $500. 

If states cannot implement that formula — several have warned that because of archaic systems it could take months to put in place — then they could pick a $200 per week federal unemployment benefit instead.  

“We want to help workers, but we want to avoid a situation where we prolong unemployment,” Johnson said. 

He added that the previous $600 per week was “too generous” and argued that it was hurting the ability to hire workers back.  

But Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) blocked the GOP proposal and instead tried to pass a roughly $3 trillion Democratic House bill that, among other provisions, would extend the $600 per week federal unemployment benefit through the end of the year. 

“People will be stuck with that big cut,” Schumer said, adding that “many states will not be able to implement this new plan for weeks or even months.”  

Schumer added that in addition to being “fundamentally unworkable” and “pushing more people into poverty,” the unemployment insurance proposal would take money out of the economy. 

In addition to extending the unemployment benefit, the House bill, which was passed largely along party lines, would also provide roughly $1 trillion in additional aid for state and local governments, another round of stimulus checks and additional food assistance. 

Johnson blocked that bill. Braun added that the House bill was a “monstrosity.” 

Under the Senate’s rules, any one senator can try to set up or pass a bill, but any one senator can also block it. 

The dueling proposals are the latest sign of the lack of progress toward a bipartisan deal after days of negotiations between Schumer, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Caif.), Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows.  

“We can’t do a deal because I don’t believe our friends on the other side of the aisle are serious about doing a deal,” Johnson said, explaining why he was trying to move his own standalone unemployment measure. 

Schumer fired back that they had been asking Republicans to negotiate on a fifth coronavirus relief bill “for a very long time.”  

“We’ve had nothing,” Schumer said. “We got here because our Republican colleagues couldn’t get their act together. … Instead of being serious in negotiating, they have created a stunt.” 

Tags Charles Schumer Coronavirus coronavirus relief COVID-19 Mark Meadows Mike Braun Nancy Pelosi Ron Johnson Steven Mnuchin Unemployment benefits Unemployment insurance
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