WASHINGTON – As time expires on elements of the first coronavirus relief package, the triple threat of mass evictions, lost unemployment benefits and cratering gross domestic product has yet to bring the U.S. Senate and House and the White House together on a new economic stimulus plan.
The House passed a $3.4 trillion relief plan, the HEROES Act, in May. This week, the Senate offered a $1.1 trillion plan, the HEALS Act. With an August recess set to begin Aug. 8, both chambers of Congress are under pressure to reach an agreement over starkly different approaches to rescue the U.S. economy from coronavirus ruin.
Republicans want to cut $600 weekly federal supplements to unemployment payments to $200 per week because they say the higher amount discourages people from trying to find jobs.
Democrats want money for COVID-19 testing and contact tracing and other state and local aid that the White House and Republicans balk at.
Republicans want to shield businesses from COVID-related lawsuits. Democrats want workers and consumers protected.
The only thing that looks very likely is that Americans will get a second stimulus check of at least $1,200 if they make less than $75,000. They may also get some additional money depending on how many dependents they have. Republicans want to stick with $500 per dependent. Democrats want to raise dependent supplements to $1,200 per dependent and expand the number of dependents who are eligible.
Minnesota’s federal delegation offers a representative example of the national partisan fight.
“The provisions providing an extra $600 per week in unemployment benefits needs to be revised so people are incentivized to go back to work,” Republican Rep. Jim Hagedorn said.
Republican Rep. Pete Stauber said the additional $600 per week the first stimulus package offered left some recipients getting more in unemployment pay than they made at the jobs they lost.
Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson, who voted for the House relief bill, broke ranks with his party on the issue. “If the unemployment benefits are extended for those who are unable to get back to work, it shouldn’t be for more than people were making while working.”
Other Democrats in the Minnesota delegation want the $600 weekly supplement to continue for as long as the president’s national-emergency declaration lasts. The Democrats also seek other forms of financial support.
“We need to act with a sense of urgency to immediately renew the unemployment benefits that will lapse this week, approve another round of stimulus payments to families, and pass much-needed help for schools, state and local government, ” Democratic Sen. Tina Smith said.
Funding for local and state government is a huge sticking point between the plans. According to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, state and local aid totals roughly $1.1 trillion in the Democratic stimulus bill. The Republican plan includes only $105 billion.
Republican Rep. Tom Emmer said “American families still need a hand up through these difficult times. However, we need to make sure we are not spending ourselves into another crisis down the line.” He cautioned that “endless spending from the government will not solve this crisis.”
Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar countered that all Americans must have access to COVID-19 testing. Klobuchar supports the House relief bill, saying it addresses “the continued problems with coronavirus testing,” supports “state and local governments in their response to the pandemic” and delivers “funding to ensure that people can safely vote” in the November presidential election. “The Senate,” Klobuchar said, “needs to pass the HEROES Act to help all Americans.
Democratic Rep. Angie Craig led a group of House members who fought to expand the number of dependents eligible for stimulus supplements. Craig pushed to raise the maximum age of dependents from 16 to 19 and included full time students up to age 24 and permanently disabled dependents in the mix.
A Republican move to provide businesses immunity from lawsuits arising from their treatment of employees and customers during the pandemic offers another point of contention. Stauber and Hagedorn both cited the need to protect businesses from what Hagedorn called “frivolous lawsuits.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky called the immunity issue nonnegotiable with Democrats who say the number of COVID-related lawsuits filed so far is minimal and that workers and shoppers deserve protection.
The Washington Post reported Friday that President Donald Trump and his staff might be willing to sacrifice business immunity in order to extend unemployment insurance.
Pandemic stimulus legislation has become a catchall for both parties. Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar, who hopes to include a measure providing free school meals for all students for the duration of the pandemic, criticized Republicans for offering a pandemic relief package that “includes billions of dollars for projects unrelated to the worst crisis our country has ever endured.”
An example is funding for a new FBI building that the Republican majority in the Senate offered in its COVID-19 response package.
As leaders of the House, Senate and Trump negotiated, several members of the Minnesota delegation criticized the 11th-hour nature of the talks.
“In mid-May, Democrats passed the HEROES Act,” said Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum. “We’ve known for the past two and a half months that a crisis awaits millions of American families if these benefits are not extended. If Republicans care at all about avoiding total disaster and devastation, they will work with us to save lives and livelihoods.”