POLITICS

'Pissing Contest' Escalates As Trump's Jobless Benefits Plan Runs Dry

President Trump calls for "much higher numbers" in coronavirus relief spending.

WASHINGTON ― As Donald Trump’s stopgap partial replacement for expanded unemployment benefits runs dry in several states, Congress and the president feuded Wednesday over a coronavirus relief package that appears to be going nowhere. 

Trump called Democrats “heartless” in a tweet and said Republicans should “go for the much higher numbers.” But Republicans have generally balked at extra unemployment benefits, as well as money for state and local governments and another round of stimulus checks, while Democrats have been the ones pushing for $3 trillion in spending.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) welcomed Trump’s message, if a bit sarcastically. 

“We look forward to hearing from the president’s negotiators that they will finally meet us halfway with a bill that is equal to the massive health and economic crises gripping our nation,” the Democrats said in a joint statement. 

For months, the two sides have failed to reach a deal on another coronavirus relief deal. Democrats have held out for a continuation of the $600 per week unemployment supplement, which Congress created in March but which expired at the end of July. 

Republicans and the Trump administration have suggested they would support some amount of supplemental benefits, but talks collapsed at the beginning of August when neither side moved much from their original position. 

At that point, Trump signed a memorandum redirecting Federal Emergency Management Agency dollars that states could use to give laid-off workers an extra $300 per week.

For many Republicans, no new congressional deal is just fine with them.

“They should quit negotiating against themselves,” Rep. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio) said of his fellow Republicans on Wednesday. “It’s obvious the Democrats don’t want to deal.” 

Davidson echoed the Republican position that unemployment benefits should be a percentage of what a worker was making before the job loss, rather than a flat sum. But Davidson didn’t seem too bothered by the prospect of not reaching a deal, which was a sentiment expressed by plenty of GOP members.

Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.) told HuffPost on Wednesday he was still concerned that some workers were making more money than they were before losing their jobs, even on the reduced supplemental unemployment. “We can’t get people to come back,” he said. 

I know it’s a trillion-dollar pissing contest, but it’s a pissing contest nonetheless. Jami Janes, an unemployed Californian

For those Republicans who want to help the unemployed, it’s Pelosi who’s standing in the way.

“The only reason Democrats are saying no is politics,” Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-Wis.) said Wednesday. “If it’s not done, it’s a decision made, to me, by Nancy Pelosi and the powers that be that they don’t want Trump to get something done.”

Some moderate Democrats are also becoming increasingly frustrated with Pelosi’s unwillingness to accept the proverbial half loaf.

Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), who represents a Republican-leaning district, expressed exasperation on a call Tuesday with Democratic members.

“My conviction is to actually do my goddamn job and come up with a solution for the American people,” Spanberger said, according to Politico. “We have to bring something to the floor.”

Spanberger was a bit more deferential on Wednesday. She told HuffPost she was continuing to work on putting forth “the framework of a deal,” pointing to a proposal that the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus proposed Tuesday. But it’s clear there are some moderate Democrats ready to accept less than what House Democrats passed in May ― just as there are some Democrats standing by leadership and the House’s initial demands.

“I mean, I’m going to hold strong,” Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) told HuffPost, raising the point that plenty of people were struggling to survive even on the extra $600 a week.

Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), chairman of the House Democrats’ messaging arm, said Democrats needed to pass a bill that “actually responds to the serious health care and economic challenges we face.”

“And I have confidence that we’re going to get there,” Cicilline said.

But that confidence seems to be founded on very little. At this point, congressional Democrats and the White House are barely talking about a coronavirus package ― even as Trump’s temporary expansion of unemployment aid begins to expire in many states.

As Trump has done repeatedly during his presidency, he used questionable executive authority to sidestep Congress, using disaster relief to fund the $300-a-week payments — a significant cut from $600 but still some support for the many Americans barely making it right now. 

The program had a rocky rollout, as state labor departments had to set up new payment schemes since the money technically isn’t an unemployment benefit and legally can’t be paid through existing programs. Many states still haven’t managed to make a payment. 

At the same time, limited funding means benefits are already ending in Texas, Montana, Tennessee, Iowa, Utah, Arizona, New Hampshire and Florida. 

The Senate’s top Democrat on unemployment policy, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), told HuffPost this week that Republicans deliberately used the benefits to deflect from their refusal to go along with more assistance. 

“The fact is, the Trump administration has always stonewalled on real help for the unemployed,” Wyden said.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) says the Trump administration has "stonewalled" on help for workers who've lost jobs during the pande
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) says the Trump administration has "stonewalled" on help for workers who've lost jobs during the pandemic.

A senior Democratic aide said the wage scheme itself was a ruse to kill a broader deal and lay blame, pointing to the White House chief of staff, one of the main negotiators.  

“Its chief architect was Mark Meadows, who was simultaneously alleging to be negotiating in good faith while coming up with executive orders to undermine the talks he was party to,” the aide said.

Despite the program’s problems, it’s been a help for many jobless workers. 

“I’m never going to be one to complain that unemployed folks got some money,” said Michele Evermore, an unemployment insurance expert with the National Employment Law Project who has criticized Trump’s executive action. “It’s just that this could have been a lot easier if Congress had gotten its act together.” 

What was particularly vexing, Evermore said, was that the initial legislation with $600 a week was “one of the greatest expansions of unemployment insurance in history, and it happened in a fully bipartisan way with regular negotiations.” 

Economists have credited the $600 with propping up the economy by giving more than 25 million workers enough money to pay their bills ― and they’ve said dropping the benefit could hurt the economy badly, since consumer spending amounts to 70% of gross domestic product.  

Jami Janes of Meadow Vista, California, said the extra $600 pushed her weekly unemployment payment to nearly $900, which allowed her to pay all her bills. After the $600 went away, she started putting expenses on credit cards. 

“The credit card bills are piling up, and I’m not sure how I will make rent next month,” Janes said. 

She said she’s received two $300 payments from Trump’s initiative and expects one more. The program was intended to last through December, but FEMA told states they would initially receive enough money for just three weeks of payments, with additional disbursements coming on a weekly basis while the money lasts. 

Janes said she’s in a better position than many, but she’s furious with lawmakers on both sides for failing to reauthorize the benefits. Congress can’t snap its fingers and make her house safe from wildfires or reopen her son’s school, but it has already shown it can pass a bill and put money in her bank account. She thinks Pelosi ought to cut a deal. 

“It is just beyond my understanding of why, when there are so many things that cannot be fixed or solved quickly, the one thing our government could do to help immediately they have decided to have a pissing contest over,” Janes said.

“I know it’s a trillion-dollar pissing contest, but it’s a pissing contest nonetheless,” she said.


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