Democrats have given up on giving unemployed workers an extra $600 per week in unemployment benefits as part of a new COVID-19 relief package.
Instead, the party seems to be coalescing around President Joe Biden’s proposal to add $400 per week. The measure is part of a $1.9 trillion proposal for a pandemic recovery bill that included a host of other Democratic priorities, such as raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
“I think the $400 is the high-water mark in the current negotiation and I hope we hold to it,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told HuffPost when asked about Biden’s plan on Tuesday.
Democrats are poised to pass Biden’s bill, or something similar to it, using a special process called budget reconciliation that requires only a simple majority in the Senate, allowing them to bypass opposition from Republicans. That means Democrats only have to compromise with themselves, which is apparently what they are doing.
Congress included an extra $600 in federal unemployment aid in the March 2020 Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Stability Act, or CARES. Maintaining that amount was a staple of Democratic demands for coronavirus relief through last year.
Biden’s campaign website said he would “work with Congress to extend the boosted unemployment benefits (the extra $600) for however long this crisis lasts.”
House Democrats included a $600 increase as part of the $2 trillion relief they passed in October, and Senate Democrats included it in an unemployment messaging bill they introduced in December. Both bills also would have paid benefits retroactively, meaning they’d give jobless workers a lump sum for at least some of the weeks of extra benefits they’d missed.
“The benefits will be retroactive,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) declared in an October CNN interview about negotiations between Democrats and the Trump administration.
The $600 was the most Congress has ever added to unemployment benefits. It represented the gap between the average national weekly wage of about $900 and the average weekly state unemployment benefit of about $300. Congress also broadened eligibility to include gig workers and others without traditional jobs, changes that essentially remade a state-federal unemployment system that’s been in a decadeslong decline.
But the weekly bump lasted only until July. In December, Democrats and Republicans, still in control of the Senate and the White House, struck a deal to bring back the supplemental benefit back at $300, but only until March, a deadline the Biden administration has cited as reason not to waste too much time begging Republicans to support a big relief bill.
House and Senate Democrats embraced Biden’s “American Rescue Plan” in press releases on Monday. The proposal would boost the supplement to $400 and keep federal benefit programs in place through September.
Even with such a short-term extension ― Democrats previously wanted the $600 in place all year ― Biden’s jobless pay provisions would cost nearly $300 billion. By comparison, the $1,400 one-time relief payments, which would go to more than 10 times as many people, cost $425 billion.
After having approved $4 trillion worth of pandemic-related spending across multiple bills last year, Democrats seem to want to avoid the total cost of the next rescue plan exceeding $2 trillion.
It would make sense to keep the benefits at $600 considering there are more cases of coronavirus every day than there were when Congress first created the benefit, said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. He has also pushed for federal benefits to remain in place as long as the unemployment is above normal, a proposal the Biden administration noted but didn’t include in its rescue plan.
“Obviously, the Biden administration went for $400,” Wyden said. “I’m pleased that they formally noted the importance of tying the future of economic benefits to conditions on the ground.”
Some jobless workers are disappointed that Democrats aren’t pushing for $600 now that they control the Senate.
“When they start wobbling on their promises it kind of really annoys me because it makes me feel like a sucker for believing them in the first place,” said Shannon O’Brien, a 48-year-old bartender in Averill Park, New York.
O’Brien said he’s been out of work since early last year and that without the extra $600, he’s been unable to stay current on bills without borrowing money from friends and family. He had been counting on the return of the $600, with benefits backdated so that he could catch up on his debts.
“To drop to $400 without needing to ― especially if they’re going to go through reconciliation, they won’t need the Republicans ― without an explanation, just seems very disingenuous,” O’Brien said.
Stephanie Freed, an unemployed production electrician and lighting designer in New York City, has been lobbying Congress to bring back the $600 since before it expired in July. From talking to Capitol Hill offices in recent weeks, she gets the impression that Democrats are following Biden’s lead and that they feel they have to go with a lower number in order to win over their more moderate members.
“[Biden] has strapped Democrats in and we aren’t seeing enough offices push more boldly because they understand the urgency to get it done and splitting the party won’t get it done quickly,” Freed said in an email. “Moderate Democrats with Republican austerity talking points are currently the barrier to bigger action.”
Spokespeople for the White House and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate didn’t respond to requests for comment.