Lawmakers Are Still Fussing Over Pandemic Relief As Time Runs Out

Johnny Nguyen 16:30

There hasn't been much progress in talks between Democrats and the Trump administration.

WASHINGTON ― It took only one day for the flicker of optimism over a new coronavirus relief bill to extinguish, as Democrats and the Trump administration both signaled Thursday that a deal wasn’t coming together.

“This isn’t half a loaf,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Thursday. “What they’re offering is the heel of the loaf.”

After Pelosi delayed a vote Wednesday night on a scaled-down proposal that would restore the extra $600 a week for the unemployed, provide another round of $1,200 checks to most Americans, and give state and local governments $436 billion ― a bill costing $2.2 trillion ― the possibility of a deal looked better than perhaps any time during the past two months. 

But the optimism quickly turned to pessimism, as Pelosi cast doubt on a deal during a conference call with Democratic members, as well as during a weekly press conference.

“We come from two different places,” Pelosi said of Republicans on Thursday. 

The major sticking points are the state and local aid, liability protections for businesses that have reopened during the coronavirus pandemic, and the overall cost of the bill. The Trump administration has said it came up to $1.6 trillion from its initial offers of a measure costing less than $1 trillion. But Democrats have been working their way down from a $3.4 trillion bill the House passed in May.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) appears to be indifferent about a deal anyway. All that he offered on Thursday was that he wished Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin well as they attempted to reach an agreement.

But both sides appear to be coming to terms with the fact that there won’t be a deal. Pelosi decided to move ahead with a vote on the scaled-down measure, a signal to voters that Democrats have compromised and that it’s Republicans who won’t negotiate. And Republicans ― many of whom have publicly said they would prefer that extra jobless benefits not be renewed ― also seem content to rediscover their fiscal conservative credentials as the prospects of a Joe Biden presidency grow by the day.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin departs from the office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at the U.S. Capitol on We
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin departs from the office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday. Mnuchin met with Democrats and Republicans about coronavirus relief legislation.

None of that will be much solace to the millions of unemployed workers whose incomes shrank dramatically with the loss of the extra $600 at the end of July. And with the coronavirus still spreading across the country, jobs aren’t necessarily easy to find. 

The national unemployment rate has fallen to 8.4% since peaking at 14.7% in April, but the pace of job growth has slowed in recent months. Economists worry the recovery could stall without another spending boost from the federal government. A fresh jobs report coming Friday could clarify whether the economy is at risk of a double-dip recession. 

One of the most efficient ways to help the economy is to give money to unemployed workers ― that’s why in March Congress added $600 to state unemployment benefits, which typically pay less than $350 per week. 

So many people were receiving benefits at the time ― more than 25 million ― that the lapse resulted in overall disposable incomes falling 3.2% in August, according to new numbers released Thursday by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. 

Democrats want to bring back the $600 and keep it until the end of January. The administration has offered $400, but the disagreement on a broader package means workers will be left with whatever their state pays. 

“If there’s not a fiscal package, it’s going to be harder for the economy to recover,” said Marc Goldwein, a budget expert with the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, which had projected a 4% income drop for August. 

The numbers represent big changes for real people. D.C. resident Arlene Johnson said she’s been furloughed since March from her job as a program manager at an adult day program for people with intellectual disabilities. Daily life in the city hasn’t returned to normal and Johnson isn’t sure whether she’ll get called back to her position. 

She’s drastically cut her expenses ― canceling her alarm system subscription and home warranty, making minimum payments on credit cards, and getting groceries from free food sites around town. 

“Even with the $600, it was still less than what I was making,” Johnson, 63, said in an interview. “But with the $600 it was still manageable because I wasn’t driving, I didn’t need gas, it was still balancing out somewhat.” 

Without the extra money, Johnson said she’s “looking down a dark hole” ― she believes she is too young to retire but has had only two Zoom interviews for possible jobs. She thinks Congress is being too partisan and ignoring people who haven’t been able to go back to work. 

“They’re not taking them into consideration,” Johnson said. “They’re not thinking about what’s good for the country.”

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