McConnell tees up showdown on unemployment benefits

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is turning the Senate toward a fight on federal unemployment benefits, which are set to expire Friday.

The decision to force a vote comes as negotiators remain far apart on a larger coronavirus relief deal. In a sign of the stalemate, Republicans and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) blocked dueling coronavirus proposals earlier Thursday. 

“We’ve had enough rope-a-dope. We’ve had enough empty talk. It’s time to go on the record,” McConnell said from the Senate floor.

Senate Republicans successfully brought up a bill they will use as a vehicle for their competing unemployment proposals, none of which appear to have the votes needed to actually pass next week. 

McConnell did not say on the floor what proposal he will try to force a vote on first, and didn’t respond to follow up questions as he went back to his office. 

But several GOP senators say they expect him to bring up the proposal from Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Mike Braun (R-Ind.) that would replace the expiring $600 per week federal benefit with a scalable match, which when paired with state unemployment, would equal two-thirds of a person’s previous wages with a $500 cap on the federal benefit. The $600 per week federal benefit was included in the March bill and will expire Friday. 

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), McConnell’s No. 2, said that the Johnson-Braun proposal will be the Senate’s starting point and it will need 60 votes, meaning at least seven Democrats. 

“It will need 60, everything probably from here on will need 60, so we’ll see where that goes,” Thune said. 

Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) added that the “first attempt, and maybe the last one, would basically be the Johnson bill.” 

Under the Johnson-Braun proposal, if state offices could not implement the wage match they could instead give a flat $200 per week federal benefit. 

In addition to the Johnson-Braun proposal, Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) have introduced their own bill, which they are are hoping to get a vote on as part of the Senate’s debate next week, that would allow states to either implement an 80 percent wage replacement or a flat amount of $500 per week in August. After that it would be scaled down to $400 per week in September or $300 in October. 

“Senator McConnell made it very clear that it would be open to amendment,” Collins said. 

But it’s not clear that any proposal will be able to pass the Senate. 

Democrats blocked the Johnson-Braun proposal earlier Thursday, when they called the wage match unworkable and warned that it would push more people into poverty and take billions out of the economy. 

Schumer railed against McConnell’s plan Thursday. 

“My fellow Americans, we are in an enormous crisis. We are stepping up to the plate on this side of the aisle. Please let your Senators know on the Republican side of the aisle how deep this crisis is, how painful it is for people, and to step up to the plate,” Schumer said. 

“Get in the room and negotiate a real deal and stop doing stunts that simply are political, get-it-off-my-back, that you know cannot pass,” Schumer added.

But it would allow McConnell to force them to go on the record blocking unemployment benefits or pressure them to make a larger deal. 

Asked about his decision to tee up the unemployment insurance debate, McConnell told reporters “we can keep talking and hopefully making progress because no progress is being made anywhere else.”

Thune added that Republican senators wanted to vote, and signaled that they were growing frustrated by the slow progress in the bipartisan talks. 

“We need to get things moving and this gets things moving. Our guys want to vote, they want to be able to prove they’re moving the ball down the field and the Democrats want to keep blocking. This exposes that. And hopefully it will get them to get serious about actually sitting down and working on a solution,” Thune said.

Tags Chuck Schumer Coronavirus COVID-19 John Thune Kevin Cramer Martha McSally Mike Braun Mitch McConnell Mitt Romney Ron Johnson Susan Collins Unemployment

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