Unemployment debate sparks GOP divisions

A looming floor fight over unemployment insurance is putting a spotlight on GOP divisions about how to replace the $600 per week federal benefit.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is set to bring the debate to a head this week, with Republican leaders saying they are eager to hold votes that will make Democrats go on the record as bipartisan talks on a broader coronavirus package remain stalled.

But the floor votes could also highlight differences among the 53 Senate Republicans, who have struggled to agree on what to do about the federal benefit that expired last week.

“What’s the best solution? Probably something that we’ll find out here in the next couple of days,” said Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican. “I think it’s likely that we will have some proposals that won’t get to 50. … I just think it’s going to be a question of finding that sweet spot, and figuring out which one wins.”

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, noted that “there is a sizable number who think we shouldn’t … add on anything” above the unemployment benefit already provided by states.

As part of the record $2.2 trillion CARES Act in late March, Congress agreed to provide a $600 per week federal payment, in addition to state unemployment. But that boost expired on Friday night, creating new uncertainty for the roughly 30 million Americans who have filed applications for unemployment insurance since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

Congressional Democrats and the Trump administration are at loggerheads over how to replace the federal payment, with Democrats proposing an extension of the $600 amount through early next year and the Senate GOP proposal favoring a transition to a 70 percent wage match that would last through the end of the year.

But with McConnell saying “no progress is being made anywhere else” on the negotiations, Republicans are now eager to hold votes and show they are trying to advance reduced unemployment benefits legislation, even if it’s destined to fail, as the economic fallout from the virus inflicts even steeper financial pain for jobless Americans.

“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,” Thune told reporters late last week about the strategy. “This exposes that. And hopefully it will get them to get serious about actually sitting down and working on a solution.”

McConnell has not said what proposal he will start with and did not lay out his plan during brief remarks on the Senate floor Monday, but GOP senators expect he will first try to bring up a measure from Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Mike Braun (R-Ind.) that would ultimately provide a two-thirds match to a person’s previous wages.

GOP senators said the timing and order of potential proposals are in flux as Republicans try to figure out which one could garner the most support and keep an eye on the bipartisan talks, which negotiators described as productive but far from a final deal.

“There was no decision made on that. … They’re considering the universe of options,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), asked after a GOP leadership meeting about the timing of the floor votes.

A GOP senator acknowledged that McConnell “told us he wasn’t sure yet” last week about which proposal will start the debate “and he’s still not sure.”

One proposal under discussion would be a measure from Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Mike Braun (R-Ind.) that would ultimately provide a two-thirds match to a person’s previous wages.

“We can’t pay anyone more in unemployment than they made at their job. I support a temporary boost in unemployment benefits that fixes this problem without adding trillions in debt or funding D.C. pet projects,” Braun said.

The federal benefit in the proposal would be capped at $500 per week, and if a state could not make that transition, the federal government would instead provide a flat $200 per week.

But the Johnson-Braun proposal is expected to have competition from other GOP ideas, underscoring the division within the caucus.

Cornyn said he was undecided on the Johnson-Braun amendment, adding, “I think there may be a number of different proposals that we’ll have a chance to vote on.”

“I would say the only consensus is we don’t want to pay people not to work than to work,” Cornyn said. When asked about the consensus for how to do that, he said, “That’s the hard part.”

Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) introduced their own bill, which they are hoping will receive a vote as part of the Senate’s debate. Their measure would give states two options for getting a federal unemployment benefit. 

One would provide, when state and federal benefits are combined, an 80 percent wage replacement. States would also have the option to take a flat weekly amount, which would start as $500 per week in August then decline to $400 in September and $300 in October.

“Unemployed workers should not be left in limbo while Congress continues to negotiate the next relief package,” Romney said in a statement. “Our solution extends the supplemental benefits for three months and incentivizes states to update their [unemployment insurance] processing system.”

Republicans view the previous $600 per week benefit as too generous, arguing it’s a disincentive for some individuals to return to work, further restraining an economy already in recession.

“Unemployment is supposed to be wage replacement, so it should be tied to some percentage of wages,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday. “The fact that we had a flat number was only an issue of an emergency where we had 30-year-old computer systems.”

As part of their March debate over the CARES Act, Republicans tried to cap the unemployment benefits at 100 percent of an individual’s previous wages. But they were told by the Labor Department that because of outdated government technology, they would not be able to easily make that transition. Some states have even warned it could take them weeks if not months to incorporate percentages instead of a flat amount.

But Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said on Monday that he will offer a proposal as part of the Senate’s debate to make the unemployment benefit the same as a person’s previous wage.

“It’s the 21st century, enough already,” Graham said, asked about the concerns from states. “All I’m saying, is I want to replace your wages, but not give you a pay raise.”

Tags CARES Act Chuck Grassley Coronavirus coronavirus relief COVID-19 John Cornyn John Thune Lindsey Graham Martha McSally Mike Braun Mitch McConnell Mitt Romney Pandemic Ron Johnson Steven Mnuchin Susan Collins Unemployment insurance
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