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Republicans threaten to slow walk coronavirus stimulus bill over unemployment provision

A group of Republican senators are warning they will oppose fast-tracking a mammoth coronavirus stimulus package as they push for changes to a “drafting error” related to the bill’s bolstered unemployment benefits.

Sens. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said there was a “massive drafting error” within the package that would have “devastating consequences.”

“Unless this bill is fixed, there is a strong incentive for employees to be laid off instead of going to work. … We must sadly oppose the fast-tracking of this bill until this text is addressed, or the Department of Labor issues regulatory guidance that no American would earn more by not working than by working,” the three senators said in a statement.

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Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who joined the other three senators at a press conference on the issue Wednesday, added in a tweet that “we shouldn’t have policies in place that disincentivize people from returning to the workforce.”

Senate leadership want to pass the stimulus package on Wednesday, but that requires the cooperation of every senator. If Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is not able to get a deal, opponents could drag out the bills for days.

Pressed on whether they would force McConnell to go through all the procedural hoops, Tim Scott sidestepped, saying: “I am very hopeful we will get this done very quickly.”

They are asking for an amendment vote that would cap unemployment benefits at 100 percent of an individual’s income. The senators indicated if they could get an amendment vote, they would let the bill be sped up even if it failed.

“I think we need to fix this now because it only makes the problem worse,” Graham said. “I want an amendment vote. We’ll see what happens.”

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Unemployment insurance was one of the biggest sticking points of the days-long Senate negotiations.

The Senate agreement includes four months of bolstered unemployment benefits—a deal that was worked out by Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), McConnell and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

A GOP aide pushed back against the four senators, underscoring the divisions within the caucus, saying that “nothing in this bill incentivizes businesses to lay off employees, in fact it’s just the opposite.”

“Each state has a different UI program, so the drafters opted for a temporary across-the-board UI boost of $600 dollars, which can deliver needed aid in a timely manner rather than burning time to create a different administrative regime for each state. This increase is designed to make the average worker whole. It’s also important to remember that nobody who voluntarily leaves an available job is eligible for UI. Staff continue to work with the Department of Labor to ensure that it is administered as intended,” the aide added.

Schumer wrote in a letter to his colleagues that the “extended UI program in this agreement increases the maximum unemployment benefit by $600 per week and ensures that laid-off workers, on average, will receive their full pay for four months.”

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“It ensures that all workers are protected whether they work for businesses small, medium or large, along with self-employed and workers in the gig economy,”  Schumer added.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) tweeted: “Let’s not over-complicate this. Several Republican Senators are holding up the bipartisan Coronavirus emergency bill because they think the bill is too good for laid off Americans.”

GOP senators say they discovered the “error” during a 92-minute conference call Republicans held on Wednesday morning on the bill when they asked for details on the unemployment benefits.

“When Republicans were on a conference call for 92 minutes this morning, a lot of us learned for the first time that an assurance we had been given in other settings maybe wasn’t so and that assurance was that you wouldn’t actually fail to cap this,” Sasse told reporters.

They warn that the formula could “incentivize” individuals who make less working than they would with the enhanced unemployment to quit their job.

“We cannot encourage people to make more money in unemployment than they do in employment,” Tim Scott told reporters during a press conference.

“This bill pays you more not to work than if you were working,” Graham added.

“If this is not a drafting error, then this is the worst idea that I’ve seen in a long time.”

—This report was updated at 3:20 p.m.

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