A core part of lawmakers’ job is to make sure their constituents have access to government programs that are designed to help them.
To that end, many members of Congress are pointing to expanded unemployment benefits they authorized last week as part of a massive coronavirus pandemic response bill, which will boost weekly benefits by $600.
Among the lawmakers touting the additional $600: Senate Republicans who voted against it.
“This package that we passed will provide $600 a week on top of the Montana benefit if you’re unemployed,” Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) told a local TV station the day after the bill passed. “That’s very significant. It more than doubles what the state of Montana pays. That’s taking care of those Montanans who’ve lost their jobs.”
But Daines, like most of his other GOP colleagues, supported an amendment to the bill offered by Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) that would have capped unemployment benefits and denied some people the extra $600. The Senate rejected the amendment before ultimately passing the bill last week.
A spokesperson for Daines said the senator “worked to include nearly full wage unemployment insurance in the coronavirus economic recovery bill. The senator did not think that unemployment insurance should pay more than the job a person lost.”
Sasse argued the added benefits would incentivize workers to stay unemployed.
“This bill, as currently drafted, creates a perverse incentive for men and women who are sidelined to then not leave the sidelines to come back to work,” Sasse claimed on the Senate floor.
His amendment, which all but two Senate Republicans voted for, would have directed state unemployment agencies not to give claimants the full $600 per week if it would exceed their prior wage when combined with their regular benefit allotment.
Democrats had initially wanted state agencies to precisely match wages of workers losing their jobs due to the economic downturn caused by the spread of the coronavirus. They said that Trump labor secretary Eugene Scalia argued that it would have been too much of a burden on state agencies, which have been crushed by an unprecedented surge in unemployment claims.
Negotiators ― including the Trump administration and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) ― came up with $600 because it’s roughly the difference between the average unemployment payment of about $360 and the average weekly wage of about $980. The extra cash will remain available for only four months.
Nevertheless, Sasse, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) decided to make a stink about the increased benefits on the Senate floor. Sasse’s amendment, targeting the $260 billion unemployment portion of the $2 trillion bill, was the only amendment debated on the floor. The debate was purely symbolic as the amendment stood no chance of clearing the 60 vote threshold needed for adoption.
The last-minute push to lower unemployment benefits didn’t stop some GOP senators from highlighting the ultimate provisions in the bill after its passage, however.
“It also expands unemployment insurance eligibility, and provides an extra $600 a week in federal unemployment benefits. When it comes to covering bills and navigating this uncertainly, that money is a lifeline,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) wrote in a Dallas Morning News op-ed.
In a press release titled “McSally Secures COVID-19 Relief for Arizona Families, Small Businesses,” Sen. Marthy McSally (R-Ariz.) noted that the average unemployment benefit in Arizona “will increase to $850 per week,” up from $240 per week.
Sen. Tim Scott, who spoke in favor of the Sasse amendment on the Senate floor, also touted the extra $600 in a press release.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) took a whack at Republicans who opposed the added unemployment benefits in a conference call on Thursday.
“Republicans voted against $600 for people who are out of work. Fortunately, that wasn’t the majority. But Sen. McConnell voted for that,” she said.
State workforce agencies are only just beginning to implement the changes ― which also expand eligibility for the first time to include gig workers and the self-employed ― as more than 10 million Americans have filed for benefits in just the past two weeks.
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