Coronavirus Negoitiations: Plan B, as in Bust

Coronavirus Negoitiations: Plan B, as in Bust

Reuters/Erin Scott

Plan A went nowhere fast. Plan B isn’t looking much better. With congressional negotiations on a coronavirus aid package at an impasse, lawmakers scrambled Thursday to take steps toward addressing the scheduled expiration Friday of enhanced unemployment benefits for some 20 million Americans and the broader devastation wrought by the pandemic — or at least make a good show of it.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) tried to unanimously pass legislation to continue emergency federal unemployment benefits, but at 66% of an individual’s lost wages, or about $200 per week rather than the $600 a week that has been in place since March. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) blocked the effort.

“They’ve woken up to the fact that we’re at a cliff, but it’s too late,” Schumer said of the standalone unemployment extension Thursday, according to Politico. “It’s too late because even if we were to pass this measure, almost every state says people would not get their unemployment for weeks and months. All because of the disunity, dysfunction of the Republican caucus.”

Schumer in turn tried to unanimously pass the $3 trillion package passed by the House in May. Republicans blocked it. Later, Sen. Martha McSally (R-AZ) tried to unanimously pass a one-week extension of the $600 benefit. Schumer blocked it, calling it “a stunt,” and again tried to pass the Democratic bill, which was again blocked.

McConnell set up a likely vote next week to address the expiring unemployment benefit. The Hill’s Jordain Carney reports: “Senate Republicans successfully brought up a bill they will use as a vehicle for their competing unemployment proposals, none of which appear to have the votes needed to actually pass next week.” She adds that McConnell did not say what plan he will try to force a vote on, but other GOP senators say they expect it will be the plan from Johnson and Sen. Mike Braun (R-IN).

Sens. Mitt Romney (R-UT), Susan Collins (R-ME) and McSally have a competing bill that would reportedly let states enact an 80% wage replacement or a flat $500 weekly supplement that would scale down by $100 a month in September and another $100 in October.

“We’ve had enough rope-a-dope. We’ve had enough empty talk. It’s time to go on the record,” McConnell said from the Senate floor, Carney reports.

Any Senate plan would require 60 votes for passage, meaning at least seven Democrats would need to join all Senate Republicans.

Why it doesn’t matter: All the maneuvering amounted to little more than political theater, with negotiations having devolved into partisan bickering, finger-pointing and attempts to gain leverage. “The legislative shenanigans were not meant to actually enact policy, but rather to help further the political blame game as Congress prepared to leave town without an agreement,” The Washington Post reports.

The bottom line: “The next meeting between Schumer/Pelosi and Mnuchin/Meadows will be at 8p tonight,” CNN’s Phil Mattingly reports. “To this point they've managed to meet three times, for more than three total hours, and make roughly 0 progress toward a deal.”

The official expiration tomorrow of the $600 enhanced unemployment payments appears inevitable, though the deadline could provide some incentive for a deal. If the benefits expire as expected — the last checks have already gone out millions of out-of-work Americans face a sharp, sudden drop in income. The Washington Post’s Jeff Stein highlighted the severity of the potential cutoff in aid: “If unemployment benefits go away completely, more than 30 million Americans will see an income cut of between 50 percent and 75 percent -- virtually overnight.”

Bloomberg’s Steven Dennis writes (sarcastically, in case it needs to be said) that all is not lost: “The Senate managed to designate July National Blueberry Month after failing to act on virus relief/UI benefits.”

Read more, if you can stomach it, at The Washington Post.