Congressional lawmakers are in a stubborn standoff over how much additional coronavirus aid should be given to millions of Americans suffering amid the pandemic. The monthslong logjam might not end until November at the earliest.
Both sides are confident in their negotiating strategy and believe the other side will retreat. That hasn’t happened so far, and there’s little to suggest it will before lawmakers leave town next month to focus on the approaching election.
“It’s a sort of a dead-end street and very unfortunate,” Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) said of the stalled talks on Thursday.
Democrats insist that public pressure will eventually force Republicans to accept a stimulus package large enough to adequately address the scope of the public health crisis and the accompanying economic recession.
The number of people seeking and collecting unemployment benefits has remained at historically high levels in recent weeks, a sign that the recovery in the labor market has lost momentum, thousands of jobs and businesses have been permanently lost, and mass evictions are on the rise.
“Once they see that Democrats are not going to fold ... the pressure will mount on them as it did. Just look at the last three bills,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) told CNN this week, pointing to Democratic tactics that led to Congress passing larger coronavirus relief measures earlier this year.
Republicans, meanwhile, are convinced that a vote on a slimmed-down messaging bill, which Democrats blocked on Thursday, will prompt them to restart negotiations with the White House. The downsized measure included aid for schools, small businesses, and the unemployed. It failed to advance in a 52-47 vote, short of the necessary 60 votes, with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) joining Democrats in opposition.
The $600 billion proposal left out another round of stimulus checks to most Americans, which Republicans previously supported. And it did not include rental assistance or aid to cities and states, which Democrats have insisted on.
“Demonstrating that there is near-unanimous support among Republicans for this set of solutions hopefully will inspire Democrats to come back to the table and work with us on a solution,” Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) told reporters on Thursday.
Every Democrat opposed the bill, including Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama, who faces an extremely tough reelection bid in November.
“I don’t take votes with politics in mind. I take votes with what I’m thinking is the right thing to do and this bill is totally inadequate,” Jones said afterward.
Republicans immediately accused Democrats of holding up critical aid to millions of Americans ― a charge they’re likely to amplify in television ads against incumbents on the ballot this year, like Jones and Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan. (House Democrats passed a $3 trillion coronavirus bill four months ago; Senate Republicans argued for a pause in providing further aid over the summer.)
More than a million people are losing their jobs every week ― more than the number who lost jobs in any given month of the Great Recession that started in 2007. The Labor Department announced Thursday that 1.7 million had filed for unemployment insurance in the first week of September.
“Just as the rate of new infections appears to have plateaued, so too does pandemic induced unemployment, as initial jobless claims have held steady at between 1.3 and 1.7 million for the past month ― an unthinkably high level just months ago,” Andrew Stettner, an unemployment expert with The Century Foundation, said Thursday.
And even though the economy has been adding jobs for the past several months, millions of people who lost their jobs early in the pandemic are still unemployed.
Erika Feldstein of Atlanta worked as a freelance producer of TV commercials until March 13, when everything closed and gigs dried up. She remained current on her bills until August, when Congress dropped the $600 weekly supplement it added to state unemployment benefits earlier this year.
“I’ve never been in this position in my life before. I like to work and I can’t,” Feldstein, 49, said in an interview. “I hope our Congress had a nice break, enjoyed their multiple homes and vacations near and far.”
Republicans said the extra $600 stopped people from returning to work, but the most recent employment report showed a slowdown in hiring in the first month without the federal supplement. At the same time, some economists worried the lapse would hurt the economy. But the jobs report nevertheless showed the unemployment rate continuing to decline, making the crisis seem less urgent ― especially to Republicans.
Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, said Thursday he believed “odds are high the economy will backslide into recession in coming months if lawmakers don’t provide additional fiscal support.”
Feldstein’s state benefit is $360. She said she couldn’t make her August mortgage payment and has entered a forbearance arrangement with her lender. She can skip house payments for three months, but then has to pay it all back in November.
She could get another job, but then might miss out on a commercial gig, and she’s optimistic that things will pick up this year. As a single mom, she’s valued the flexibility her career provides.
“The minute I go off of that and take a job somewhere else I’d be making the same money as on unemployment but wouldn’t be able to drop everything and do my normal freelance thing,” Feldstein said. “When I get calls sometimes the job starts the next day.”
Georgia has not yet started paying the $300 “lost wages assistance” that the Trump administration created to replace the lapsed $600 unemployment benefit.
So far, only 17 states have paid the benefits; the Georgia Labor Department said last week it would start paying soon, but that the benefits are “currently time-limited to an initial five-week period and not everyone who has filed an unemployment claim will be eligible.”
Feldstein said she’s not counting on it.
“At this point I can’t count on anything,” she said.