Vt. delegation urges action as federal unemployment benefit nears expiration

U.S. Capitol
The U.S. Capitol. Photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

With federal unemployment benefits set to expire within days, members of Vermont’s congressional delegation say a new coronavirus relief package is urgently needed.

More than a month after House Democrats passed a $3 trillion Covid-19 stimulus bill, Senate Republicans have not taken up the proposal or offered an alternative. Congress remains divided over what the next coronavirus relief package should look like.

Now, with July 31 — the expiration date for the $600 per week federal unemployment benefit — fast approaching, GOP policymakers and the White House are trying to find common ground on a scaled-back benefit, according to the Washington Post.

On Friday, Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said that the lack of action by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on a new relief package could have dire consequences.

“He’s the leader of the Senate and with two months of the HEROES Act sitting on his desk, he’s done nothing,” Welch said. “He’s going to let the benefits that have been a lifeline for families to expire at the end of July — this is catastrophic. Their inaction is catastrophic.”

The measure passed by the House in mid-May, called the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions, or HEROES, Act includes more than $2 billion for Vermont that could be used to help make state and local budgets whole. 

It also offers a second round of $1,200 direct cash aid to individuals — up to $6,000 per household. It contains $175 billion in housing assistance to help individuals and businesses pay rents and mortgages, $75 billion in federal money to fund state Covid-19 testing efforts, and would extend the $600-per-week in federal unemployment benefits through January 2021.

But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and the White House immediately signaled they were not interested in such an expensive or far reaching bill.

“They literally have not responded, the Senate Republicans and the president have not responded in two months to the House proposal,” Welch said.

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With less than a week to go before the enhanced unemployment benefits end, Senate Republicans said they would not announce a counter offer proposal until Monday.

“The administration has requested additional time to review the fine details, but we will be laying down this proposal early next week,”  McConnell said Thursday, the New York Times reported.

“The sum of these efforts will be a strong, targeted piece of legislation aimed directly at the challenges we face right now,” he added.

Republicans have signaled they would support a package with a price tag of about $1 trillion, much less than the $3 trillion that accompanies the Democrats’ proposal.

The Senate Republicans’ package is expected to include more money for the Paycheck Protection Program, another round of direct payments to individuals as well as a partial extension of the Covid-19 unemployment benefits.

The Trump administration has said it will attempt to limit unemployment benefits to 70% of the pay employees had been receiving before they lost their jobs. 

This cut to the benefit could result in workers who lost their jobs receiving $400 less per week — a drop from $600 in enhanced support to $200 under the proposal, according to the New York Times

For the past 70 days since the House sent its proposal to the Senate, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., vice chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee and a key player in the negotiations of previous coronavirus response packages, has repeatedly pushed for McConnell to begin work with Democrats on the upper chamber’s legislation.

In a statement Friday, Leahy said it is of paramount importance to authorize further relief as quickly as possible that includes unemployment assistance, money for schools to properly continue education, childcare support and housing aid.

“We need to put people first and do all we can to get ahead of this virus,” the senior senator said.

In May, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., called on the upper chamber to strengthen the HEROES Act.

In a statement, Vermont’s junior senator called on his colleagues to support expanding Medicare for the duration of the crisis, for the federal government to make sure all workers in the U.S. receive a paycheck, and to increase the direct cash assistance amount from $1,200 to $2,000 per month.

On Friday, Welch said Democrats will be ready to take swift action as soon as congressional Republicans release their bill.

“The question is will they do their job. We’ll see,” he said. “We will be ready to act immediately.”

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Kit Norton

About Kit

Kit Norton is the general assignment reporter at VTDigger. He is originally from eastern Vermont and graduated from Emerson College in 2017 with a degree in journalism. In 2016, he was a recipient of The Society of Environmental Journalists' Emerging Environmental Journalist award. Kit has worked at PRI's weekly radio environmental program, Living on Earth, and has written for the online news site Truthout.

Email: [email protected]

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