Coronavirus Unemployment Benefits Are ‘At A Cliff,’ But US Senators Can’t Find Common Ground

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A sign outside a Target store in Denver advertises job openings Wednesday, July 22, 2020.

Despite words like “urgent” and “urgency” being thrown around by Republican and Democrat senators over extending unemployment help for millions of Americans, most of them left Washington, D.C. — the eve before the federal unemployment benefit expires — without an agreement.

Instead, there was a lot of political finger-pointing and theater.

Republicans tried to pass a temporary federal unemployment benefit extension of $200, down from $600, or two-thirds of their previous salary through a parliamentary procedure called unanimous consent. Democrats objected.

Democrats then tried to pass the House-passed HEROES Act, which would continue the extra $600 benefit through January 2021, the same way. This time Republicans objected. The political theater was repeated a couple of hours later when Republicans tried to pass a one-week extension of the $600 benefit, and Democrats again countered with the HEROES Act.

“If our Democratic colleagues had acted with urgency, unemployed Americans wouldn’t be facing a total elimination of this extra help,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said. “But instead, jobless Americans are staring down this cliff because Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi and the Democratic leader have refused to negotiate.”

After a delay of almost a week, McConnell unveiled the GOP plan, called the HEALS Act, on Monday. It quickly became apparent that many Republicans in his caucus did not support the plan.

Democratic leader Sen. Chuck Schumer laid the blame for the lapse at the “disunity, dysfunction” of the Republican caucus.

“For 10 weeks — 10 weeks — we have asked the leader to negotiate. And now, finally, they’ve woken up to the fact that we’re at a cliff. But it’s too late,” Schumer said. “Because even if we were to pass this measure, almost every state says people would not get their unemployment for weeks and months.”

Both Colorado Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner have said they support the continuation of the federal unemployment benefit. Bennet has called for the enhanced unemployment benefit to be tied to the unemployment rate. As the unemployment rate lowers, so would the benefit.

Bennet noted that Senate Republicans have been dragging their feet for months. 

“Given the severity of the health and economic crisis, this is not a time to pass something simply for the sake of saying ‘We did something’ when it fails to address the challenges we’re facing,” he said. “We need to take bold, meaningful action.”

For him that means extending unemployment benefits; supporting the hardest hit small businesses through the end of the year and into early next year; providing additional funding for state and local governments; and creating a health force to boost contact tracing and testing efforts.

His message to Coloradans losing the benefit is simple: "I’m going to do everything I can to make sure we can get through this."

On the other side of the aisle, Gardner said he supports extending the unemployment benefits that were part of the CARES Act. 

“COVID-19 has affected our entire state and we must continue working to ensure relief is reaching those in need, including through extending unemployment benefits,” Gardner said in a statement.

The last day unemployed Coloradans could claim for the extra federal benefit was July 25.

The impasse comes as the Commerce Department released numbers on just how badly the economy contracted due to the pandemic. GPD shrank at an annual rate of 32.9 percent during the second quarter. And almost 1.5 million people applied for unemployment last week.

The Senate didn’t leave the Capitol entirely empty-handed. The chamber passed a shell bill should a last-minute agreement be reached.

“It makes it the pending business for next week. We can keep talking and hopefully make progress, because there’s no progress being made anywhere else,” McConnell said.

But it’s not just federal unemployment help that expires. Last week, moratoriums on rental evictions expired. And next week the Paycheck Protection Program expires.

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, who has been one of the lead negotiators for the administration, said Thursday he was not optimistic that agreement on a comprehensive bill will be reached anytime soon. The Senate is scheduled to start a month-long recess starting Aug. 8.