Congress should pass a COVID-19 relief bill before federal unemployment benefits begin to expire in March, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday.
“We are going to hit a cliff, an unemployment insurance cliff, in March, where millions of people won’t be able to have access to unemployment insurance,” Psaki told reporters in the White House briefing room.
Federal unemployment benefits for gig workers, and those who have been out of a job for more than six months, start to expire on March 14, a deadline Congress set last month in its most recent pandemic relief bill. The legislation also provided an extra $300 per week for all unemployment recipients, which will expire at the same time.
President Joe Biden has proposed boosting the weekly supplement to $400 and maintaining it though September, along with the other federal jobless aid programs. But the unemployment policies were just one part of a much larger proposed relief package that would include $1,400 payments to most households and a host of other Democratic priorities, such as raising the minimum wage.
Biden has been trying to win support from Republicans for his proposal, but so far, none have endorsed it. The White House has not ruled out bypassing Republicans by using a special budget process called “reconciliation,” which would allow Democrats to push legislation through the Senate with a simple majority vote instead of needing to get 10 Republicans to go along with the chamber’s 50 Democratic votes.
“There are a number of means of getting bills passed,” Psaki said Monday.
Another obstacle to getting legislation done is that the Senate is holding votes to confirm Biden’s Cabinet nominations, and will start its second impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump in February.
Psaki said the White House does not expect the final bill to look exactly like Biden’s original 19-page outline, which also called for increasing money for vaccine distribution and boosting tax credits for low-income workers and people with children.
Some Democrats are particularly excited that the Biden plan included expansions of the earned income tax credit and child tax credit. The proposal, which is modeled on earlier Democratic legislation, would boost the maximum value of the child credit from $2,000 to $3,600 and make it “fully refundable,” meaning families would receive the credit as a cash payment.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said the credits are particularly helpful to front-line workers who can’t do their jobs from home, and that giving parents extra money would slash child poverty.
“I want to see Congress make this investment in kids and workers, who need help to see through this pandemic,” Brown said in a statement to HuffPost.
Brown is the co-author of the American Family Act, which would increase the value of the credit and direct the IRS to pay it in advance, essentially turning a tax benefit into a child allowance program.
The White House outline didn’t call for advance payments, but Janet Yellen, Biden’s nominee to serve as Treasury secretary, said at a hearing last week that she supports the idea and would “try to get it implemented as fast as possible” if Congress approved it.
The child tax credit is one area where there could be a bipartisan breakthrough. Several Senate Republicans, including Utah Republicans Mike Lee and Mitt Romney, have endorsed increasing the child tax credit, but they have not yet embraced Biden’s proposal.
Some Democrats have suggested jettisoning the more controversial parts of the Biden plan in favor of a “checks and shots” bill, with direct payments and more money for distributing the coronavirus vaccine.
The looming expiration of federal unemployment benefits for millions of people won’t necessarily spur bipartisan cooperation. Republicans have only grudgingly gone along with the expansions that were included in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.
Last month, at the insistence of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Congress set the federal benefits to phase out gradually, so there would be less of a “cliff” for Democrats to fret about. Workers who are already receiving federal benefits before March 14 will be able to continue until April 5, but new claims will be disallowed at the earlier deadline.
If Congress doesn’t act, 11 million workers could be cut off from federal unemployment benefits in March and April, according to an initial estimate from The Century Foundation.