WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell huddled Thursday at the White House as Republicans stake out new plans to phase out coronavirus-related unemployment benefits to encourage Americans to go back to work.
Revamping jobless aid is fast becoming the focus of debate over the next virus aid package. After the Senate decided to take a “pause” on new pandemic proposals, senators faced mounting pressure to act before leaving town for a weeklong Memorial Day break. The Senate also began efforts to fast-track an extension of a popular small business lending program.
“Republicans and the White House are reaching consensus on the need for redesigning the unemployment benefits so they are not a barrier to getting people back to work,” Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, the top Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, told reporters on a conference call.
The flurry of activity comes after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pushed a new $3 trillion aid package through the House last week. The Senate, under McConnell, says there is no urgency to act, and senators are expected to reconsider more aid only in June.
With the nation's death toll poised to hit 100,000 and layoffs surpassing 38 million, some lawmakers see a failure by Washington to act as untenable. Yet Congress has moved beyond the political consensus reached at the outset of the crisis and is now splitting along familiar party lines.
The difference in approach and priorities between Democrats and Republicans reflects the partisan split that is defining both parties before the 2020 election.
At least one Republican, Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, was trying to prevent the Senate from recessing unless it considered more aid. No votes, however, were taken.
“Now is not the time for the Senate to go home,” tweeted Gardner, who is among the most politically endangered GOP senators running for reelection in the fall.
Gardner wanted agreement to extend the small business Paycheck Protection Program and pushed for more funds for state and local governments facing layoffs. He told reporters he had called Trump to express his concerns.
As a result, senators were trying to fast-track a proposal to extend the Paycheck Protection Program's expiration. The proposed fix would double from eight to 16 weeks the window for business owners absorbing losses because of the COVID-19 pandemic to spend their federally backed loans and still qualify to have them forgiven. The program was established in March under an earlier coronavirus response bill.
While the House works remotely, the lights-on Senate has the legislative stage to itself. But the chamber that considers itself the world's greatest deliberative body spent May debating almost anything but the pandemic. It confirmed several of Trump's executive and judicial nominees, including John Ratcliffe on Thursday as director of national intelligence.
“You wouldn’t even know there’s a COVID crisis,” Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York told ABC’s “The View.” “Crazy. It’s just so wrong.”
McConnell argued that his side of the Capitol led passage of the earlier $2 trillion package. Better to assess how that money is being spent, he said, before approving more. He rejects the new $3 trillion package approved by the Democratic-led House last week as a “liberal wish list.”
On Thursday, McConnell mocked the House for working remotely and voting by proxy while senators in masks show up like other Americans returning to work. The District of Columbia remains under stay-home orders through June 8.
“The self-described ‘People’s House’ has been suspiciously empty of people,” McConnell said. “Every one of my Senate colleagues should be proud of how we’ve helped our nation win this first battle."
Pelosi shot back: “We have the Heroes bill,” she said about the House-passed aid measure. "He has the zeroes bill.”
Unemployment insurance, though, was quickly becoming a new priority for Republicans staking out the next aid package.
Brady warned that generous benefits, with a $600 weekly boost during the pandemic approved under the earlier aid bill, would “handcuff” workers and discourage them from returning to work.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said, “It was a mistake to make it so high to begin with. It would be a mistake to extend it."
Republicans are hopeful that as states reopen, the economy will improve, lessening the need for more federal funds. But if workers refuse to return to work, they worry companies can't begin to rebound.
Brady proposes giving workers a one-time $1,200 bonus to get back to work. He said conversations were happening at the highest levels at the White House.
But polling shows Americans are concerned about a second wave of the virus as shops and workplaces reopen. A poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found 83% of Americans are at least somewhat concerned that lifting restrictions in their area will lead to additional infections, with 54% saying they are very or extremely concerned.
Associated Press writers Alan Fram, Mary Clare Jalonick and Andrew Taylor contributed to this report.