WASHINGTON — Reconsideration of jobless aid is fast becoming the focus of congressional 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. Republicans are staking out plans to phase out coronavirus-related unemployment benefits to encourage Americans to go back to work. 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. President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell huddled at the White House to discuss the issues.
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.
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 the Senate 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."
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.