White House, GOP at odds over jobless aid

WASHINGTON (AP) – Negotiations over a new COVID-19 rescue bill were in flux on Friday after the White House floated cutting an unemployment benefits boost to as little as USD100 and United States (US) President Donald Trump turned to a new priority, adding money to build a new FBI headquarters.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sent senators home, promising a Republican proposal would be ready tomorrow. Outraged Democrats warned that time was being wasted on GOP infighting as the virus worsens, jobless aid expires and the death toll rises.

“We call upon Leader McConnell to get serious,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer in a statement.

During a head-spinning week of start-and-stop efforts, McConnell abruptly halted the rollout of the Republicans’ USD1 trillion plan, which was supposed to provide a counter-offer to the Democrats’ USD3 trillion bill in an opening bid for negotiations. Trump was forced to abandon his push for a payroll tax break, which his party opposed, and the White House turned to new priorities.

As Republicans struggled, the nation’s infections topped four million, deaths rose by several thousand, to nearly 145,000, and the USD600 unemployment benefit boost for millions of out-of-work Americans was on track to expire.

As McConnell shut down the Senate, he promised to return with “a strong, targetted piece of legislation aimed directly at the challenges we face right now.”

Special events workers, who were forced out of work because of the COVID-19 pandemic, marched in Salt Lake City. PHOTO: AP

The GOP leader, who is up for re-election in November alongside Trump, dashed home to Kentucky for an event with the nation’s drug czar, Jim Carroll, in a part of Appalachia confronting opioid addiction and skyrocketing overdose deaths.

As for the COVID-19 crisis, McConnell said in Ashland, Kentucky: “This has been one heck of a challenge for everybody in the country. Hopefully we can come together behind some package we can agree on in the next few weeks.”

One sticking point for Republicans trying to resolve their differences with the White House is how to cut the USD600 weekly jobless benefit boost that is expiring.

Republicans largely believe the add-on, which had been approved in an earlier aid bill, is too much and becoming a disincentive for returning to work. In some situations, the boost gives the unemployed more money than if they were working. Under McConnell’s plan, senators proposed cutting it to USD200 and then transitioning over the next few months to a new system more closely linked to a state’s own payment levels.

An administration official granted anonymity to discuss the private talks said the White House viewed the Senate GOP’s proposal as too “cumbersome” and the USD200 boost as too high. A number of different solutions were being discussed, the official said on Thursday, including dropping the add-on to USD100.

Democrats warned time was running out. The benefit officially expires July 31, but due to the way states process unemployment payments, the cut-off was effective yesterday.

Richard Neal, Chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee, said the nation is on “the eve of an economic catastrophe”.

The US registered its 18th straight week of new jobless claims topping one million, with an unemployment rate at 11 per cent, higher than during last decade’s Great Recession.