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Senate coronavirus stimulus passage likely despite jobless benefits dispute

The bill had been held up, at least partly, for hours after several Republican senators expressed concern about an unemployment provision

The Senate is expected to pass a roughly $2 trillion financial rescue package Wednesday night, despite an 11th-hour dustup over unemployment insurance benefits.

The sweeping legislation, designed to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, was held up for hours Wednesday at least partly because several Republican senators expressed concern about providing a temporary unemployment benefit boost that could give some low-wage workers more than their full salary had provided.

Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and other Republicans said such a move would incentivize employers not to keep people on payroll, but rather to let them go since they’d be better off financially anyway taking unemployment compensation. Then later, employees wouldn’t have as much motivation to reenter the workforce when they’re being paid more while unemployed, the senators said.

“You’re going to make it impossible for small businesses to hire,” Graham said on the floor late Wednesday. “We’ve created a Pandora’s Box for our economy. I wish we could fix it tonight, and if we don’t, we need to keep trying and trying and trying.”

He and Ben Sasse, R-Neb., and others are pushing an amendment to cap unemployment insurance at 100 percent of claimants’ prior salary. The dispute held up the broader bill for hours, but late Wednesday it appeared they’d agreed to let the measure go forward in exchange for a vote on their amendment — even though it’s likely to be rejected.

“I doubt if it will” get 60 votes, Graham said. He said he’ll vote for the underlying bill anyway if it fails, but believes Congress will still end up needing to fix the provision and that data that emerges in the coming weeks will prove that.

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Sasse said on the floor he too would support the broader stimulus measure.

While Republicans on both sides of the Capitol critiqued the notion of paying people more money when they’re not working than when they are, even temporarily, the White House and GOP leaders were mostly in lockstep behind the agreement with Senate Democrats.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin defended the provision at a White House news conference, saying the additional $600 a week that jobless workers could receive for four months was a compromise to avoid logistical challenges.

While lawmakers sought to provide the unemployed with their full salary in insurance benefits, the Labor Department advised there was no way to tailor the benefit to each worker’s former salary.

“This was the only way we could assure that the states could get money out quickly, in a fair way,” Mnuchin said at the White House briefing. “So, we used $600 across the board. I don’t think it’ll create incentives. Most Americans, what they want, they want to keep their jobs.”

Senate Finance Committee aides to both GOP and Democratic members, who weren’t authorized to speak for the record, said to avoid complexity the panel decided to take the average weekly compensation across the states, or $350, and top it up with the $600 to equal average weekly wages.

While some benefit claimants would get more than they did before being let go, others would get less, and some would get 100 percent wage replacement as Democrats sought. A Republican aide added the $600 a week increase doesn’t apply to any four-month period; it cuts off after July 31, regardless of how many weeks an individual has been able to claim the higher amount.

Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., said state computer systems aren’t equipped to calculate benefits based on individual salaries. “What we would end up with is frankly a deadlock: no increase in insurance benefit,” he told Republicans. “The way you want to calculate it we’re told can’t be done.”

‘I will sign it immediately’

No matter the fate of the GOP amendment, the bill’s passage seemed assured, as both parties expressed support for it.

“Our expectation is this bill passes tonight, and it gets to the House tomorrow and they pass it,” Mnuchin said. “We need to get this money into the American economy.”

And President Donald Trump pledged his full support for the bill at the same news conference. “I encourage the House to pass this vital legislation,” he said. “I will sign it immediately.”

Even if the Senate passes the measure, its path through the House remained unclear. The House is in recess this week and several of its members have tested positive for the coronavirus or are in self-quarantine because of suspected exposure.

While some House leaders had been hoping to pass the measure by unanimous consent, avoiding a recorded vote, Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters “that’s not going to happen” due to likely objections. She said a voice vote was still “a possibility,” though if any lawmakers called for a recorded vote the House could potentially vote by proxy.

“If somebody calls for a recorded vote, then we have options,” Pelosi said. “And once they know we have options, they probably won’t call for it.”

The long-awaited package offers payments to families, tax breaks and loans to businesses, expanded unemployment insurance benefits, relief for states and a massive cash infusion for hospitals buckling under COVID-19’s strain.

It’s being voted on as an amendment to an unrelated legislative vehicle that the Senate needed to take up to comply with Constitutional requirements that revenue legislation originates in the House.

A summary of the $340 billion supplemental appropriations component is here. A summary of the rest of the $2 trillion package, including tax, unemployment insurance health care, small-business loans, aid to airlines and other hard-hit industries and more can be found here.

Lindsey McPherson, Niels Lesniewski, Jennifer Shutt and Doug Sword contributed to this report.

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