Congressional GOP Set To Release Latest Version Of COVID-19 Relief Package
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
A few trillion dollars may not be quite enough to tide over the country in the pandemic. Congress has approved that much in relief, but a key provision is running out - the extra $600 in weekly unemployment benefits. Democrats proposed an extension months ago as part of a larger coronavirus package. After much delay, Republicans unveil a plan today, but they do not like that unemployment provision. White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows tells ABC the Republican plan will be different.
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MARK MEADOWS: We are going to be prepared on Monday to provide unemployment insurance extension that would be 70% of whatever the wages you were.
INSKEEP: Seventy percent - let's begin with NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell, who has some details. Hi there, Kelsey.
KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hi, good morning.
INSKEEP: I gather this is really important to Republicans that whatever people are paid on unemployment be automatically less than whatever they would have made on the job.
SNELL: Yeah, that's right. Republicans were planning to release this bill last week. And that is what held them up. And, you know, as much as they plan to get something done today, Congress doesn't always meet their goal (laughter), so I would note that this is a pretty notable sticking point. This is not Republicans attempting to come to some agreement with Democrats. This is Republicans trying to agree amongst themselves. And the big part of what's holding them back is unemployment. And they haven't even begun to set a timeline for Democrats.
I would also say that there are other problems in this bill that Republicans have been battling. One is that many of their members are reluctant to spend the estimated trillion dollars that Republicans were talking about early on. It's a large sum, and it is not anywhere near what Democrats are talking about. And then there's the question of unemployment.
INSKEEP: Yeah. And, of course, part of the delay was Republicans a couple of months ago were saying we're not even sure we're going to need another relief package. Now they seem to agree that there should be one, but there's this differing proposal from what the Democrats have.
SNELL: Yeah, so these were special federal unemployment benefits that were enacted back in March under the CARES Act. It was $600 a week on top of state unemployment benefits, which average around $378 a month. Now, they landed on that number because doing anything else would have been just too difficult. They wanted to get money to people quickly. Republicans say they've essentially been paying people a bonus to stay home because many people made less than the combination of the state benefits and that $600, so they settled on the 70% approach. But I reported over the weekend that the Department of Labor warned Congress back in May that it strongly opposed such a change because states would find it - what they said was exceedingly difficult, if not impossible. And Association of State Workforce Agencies said this transition could take months. But the administration says it's workable. And they call it a technical fix.
INSKEEP: OK. Well, we'll find out who's telling the truth, if we even get that far in the process. Kelsey, thank you very much.
SNELL: Thanks for having me.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Kelsey Snell. Now Senator Chuck Schumer of New York is on the line next. He is, of course, the Senate Democratic leader. Senator, welcome back to the program.
CHUCK SCHUMER: Glad to be back. Hope you're all healthy.
INSKEEP: From what you know, can you work with this Republican proposal?
SCHUMER: Well, first, we don't know what it is, Steve. You can't negotiate with a ghost. It keeps changing. There are leaks here. We may do this. We may do that. We may do this. Lindsey Graham yesterday said half the Republicans are not going to vote for any stimulus package. And why are we at this cliff? Well, we Democrats proposed 10 weeks ago a comprehensive plan, including dealing with unemployment insurance, extending the existing benefit to January 31, and Republicans are in such disarray and dithering - the president has no idea of what to do - that we don't know what their plan is.
I'll tell you a couple of things, though. The present plan has been hugely successful. It has kept more people out of poverty - tens of millions of people out of poverty I believe it is, certainly in the millions. And I think it's getting up to the 10 millions. It's done more to keep people out of poverty than any program. Second, it's pumped a huge amount of money into the economy. We could have gone into the Great Depression - depression, not just recession...
INSKEEP: Understood that, Senator. But let me ask you about the objection...
SCHUMER: ...Program hadn't been passed. So let me just answer your question, Steve. I will answer it...
INSKEEP: Can you work with a proposal - OK.
SCHUMER: ...So two things - no - well, no. We want to work with - we haven't seen it, so you can't ask us to work with something. But to tell people who - there are two things in it that we find objectionable. No. 1, they seem to want to pay people who go back to work. That's backwards. The people going back to work have money. The people who are unemployed don't. But second, to tell the American people, millions of American workers, you lost a job to no fault of your own, that job may not even be there, many of these jobs are gone and you get a 30% pay cut - that's unfair and wrong...
INSKEEP: Well, let me just ask about that, Senator, if I can because - forgive me, Senator, time is short here. Our own Scott Horsley did report that some businesses have been closing because it was safer and the employees could actually make a little more on unemployment than they could working. That is reality. Are the incentives a little wrong here?
SCHUMER: No, Mark Zandi, one of the most respected Republican economists, said 95 - huge percentage of people who have a job keep the job. It's permanent. It often has benefits, like health benefits and pension benefits. And they will keep it if they have the job. The vast majority of these people don't have jobs. It's not that they're sitting at home twiddling their thumbs. Americans want to work. And to tell people to take a 30% pay cut when there's no job available, which is true in most of their cases, when they've done nothing wrong, the pandemic has hurt them is the wrong way to go at a time, Steve, when the economy needs more money pumped into it, not less.
One of the few bright spots of this economy is that spending is going up. You know, people going to the stores and going to here and going to there. And that will be cut back dramatically under this Republican non-plan because we haven't even seen it yet. And we don't know what else they'd add to it. Someone said they're going to attach it to something that we find unacceptable. So it's really not fair to ask us to negotiate against the - we've been ready to go for weeks. Pelosi and I sent a letter.
INSKEEP: Understood. Let me just ask because again...
SCHUMER: ...Let's sit down and negotiate.
INSKEEP: Senator, our time is short. I've got a couple of quick questions here. Is there a limit to how much the United States can borrow? Granting the emergency, its another trillion dollars here.
SCHUMER: We're faced with two bad choices. If we limit our spending right now, we will be in greater debt later because the economy will get worse, the recession will get deeper and could turn into a depression. These are not good choices. COVID visited upon us. Trump made it dramatically worse by not doing any of the things we were supposed to do to fight this crisis. And if we spend less than we should, the debt will end up being greater than if we spend the more now.
INSKEEP: Understood. And one other question for you, Senator. As the president has become less popular in surveys, some election forecasters have been raising the odds that his party will lose the Senate. Do you believe that a Senate majority is in reach this year for you?
SCHUMER: Look, here's what I believe, the American people have seen - and many of them for the first time - how the president's incompetence and ego has led to hurting them. When he said it will go away in a few weeks, when he said it's a hoax, when he said drink bleach, when he said use hydroxychloroquine and probably most importantly when he refused my request, repeated over and over again but begun March 6, to use the DPA on testing and have a nationwide...
INSKEEP: About 10 seconds. Do you have the majority in reach?
SCHUMER: ...He created trouble that is making things look better for us. You know, it's hard to accept all this trouble, but it sure hurt him in the eyes of the American people.
INSKEEP: Is a majority in reach for you?
SCHUMER: I believe it is.
INSKEEP: Senator, thank you very much, really appreciate it.
SCHUMER: Nice to talk to you, Steve.
INSKEEP: Chuck Schumer of New York is the Senate Democratic leader. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.