WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell huddled Thursday at the White House as Republicans stake out new plans to phase out coronavirus-related unemployment benefits to encourage Americans to go back to work.
Revamping jobless aid is fast becoming the focus of debate over the next virus aid package. After the Senate decided to take a "pause" on new pandemic proposals, senators faced mounting pressure to act before leaving town for a weeklong Memorial Day break. The Senate also began efforts to fast-track an extension of the popular small business lending program.
"Republicans and the White House are reaching consensus on the need for redesigning the unemployment benefits so they are not a barrier to getting people back to work," Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, the top Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, told reporters on a conference call.
Brady warned that generous benefits, with a $600 weekly boost during the pandemic approved under the earlier aid bill, would “handcuff” workers and discourage them from returning to work.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said, “It was a mistake to make it so high to begin with. It would be a mistake to extend it.”
Republicans are hopeful that as states reopen, the economy will improve, lessening the need for more federal funds. But if workers refuse to return to work, they worry companies can’t begin to rebound.
Brady proposed giving workers a one-time $1,200 bonus to get back to work.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pushed a new $3 trillion aid package through the House last week. The Senate, under McConnell, said there is no urgency to act, and senators are expected to reconsider more aid only in June.
Better to assess how that money is being spent, he said, before approving more. He rejected the new $3 trillion package approved by the
Democratic-led House last week as a “liberal wish list.”
At least one Republican, Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, was trying to prevent the Senate from recessing unless it considered more aid. No votes, however, were taken.
"Now is not the time for the Senate to go home," tweeted Gardner, who is among the most politically endangered GOP senators running for reelection in the fall.
Gardner wanted agreement to extend the small business Paycheck Protection Program and pushed for more funds for state and local governments facing layoffs. He told reporters he had called Trump to express his concerns.
As a result, senators were trying to fast-track a proposal to extend the Paycheck Protection Program's expiration. The proposed fix would double from eight to 16 weeks the window for business owners absorbing losses because of the COVID-19 pandemic to spend their federally backed loans and still qualify to have them forgiven. The program was established in March under an earlier coronavirus response bill.
While the House works remotely, the lights-on Senate has the legislative stage to itself. It confirmed several of Trump's executive and judicial nominees, including John Ratcliffe on Thursday as director of national intelligence.
On Thursday, McConnell mocked the House for working remotely and voting by proxy while senators in masks show up like other Americans returning to work. The District of Columbia remains under stay-home orders through June 8.
"The self-described 'People's House' has been suspiciously empty of people," McConnell said. "Every one of my Senate colleagues should be proud of how we've helped our nation win this first battle."