Senate stalls on extending unemployment insurance, as $600 weekly benefit expires

The Senate has stalled on extending the popular unemployment benefit paying out-of-work Americans $600 per week, a CARES Act provision that formally expires Friday. 

For now, it has passed a “shell” bill — 47 to 42 — that did not include any details but was proposed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in an attempt to break the stalemate in negotiations over the next coronavirus relief bill.

In a speech on the Senate floor, McConnell blamed congressional Democrats for allowing the enhanced unemployment benefits to lapse. No Democrat voted in favor of advancing the bill. Republicans Cory Gardner, Republican of Colorado, and Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, joined Democrats in rejecting the motion, and eleven senators did not vote.

House Democrats passed a $3 trillion bill in May that would have extended the benefits for those without work at the current level of $600 per week, in addition to their weekly unemployment insurance check.

Senate Republicans proposed their own bill on Monday, which would cost around $1 trillion, but would reduce the weekly extra payment to $200 until states figure out a system to replace 70% of a person’s wages — with around 50% paid by the states and the remainder paid by the federal government. 

Both Senate Republicans and Democrats brought up measures Thursday that would extend unemployment insurance and tried to pass them by unanimous consent, but all of these efforts were all blocked.   

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer argued that Democrats had “asked to negotiate” for the past 10 weeks over their proposal. He accused McConnell of being “afraid to negotiate” and criticized him for not attending negotiations with Schumer, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows.

The Senate would still need 60 votes to end debate on the measure, which does not yet have any substance. The final bill may be a compromise deal reached with Democrats on unemployment insurance, a broader deal, or a series of amendments, any of which would also require 60 votes. 

The first vote on the shell bill next week is likely to be on an amendment offered by Senators Mike Braun and Ron Johnson that would provide $200 per week or 66% of wage replacement.

Republican Senators Mitt Romney and Susan Collins on Thursday have proposed an alternate that would offer two options for states: to provide extra payments of $500 a week in August, $400 a week in September and $300 a week in October — or total benefits that replace 80% of wages.

However, Pelosi and Schumer have said repeatedly that they are not interested in “piecemeal” legislation and are pushing for a full package to address the economic fallout from the pandemic. Mnuchin also warned on Wednesday that Democrats and Republicans are “very far apart” from coming to an agreement. Meadows, Mnuchin, Pelosi and Schumer will meet at 8 p.m. Thursday evening in Pelosi’s office to continue negotiations.

Meanwhile, the U.S. economy shrank at a record-breaking 32.9% rate in the second quarter of this year, the Commerce Department said Thursday. Millions of Americans have filed for unemployment insurance, and the death toll in the U.S. due to COVID-19 surpassed 150,000 on Wednesday.

Alan He and John Nolen contributed to this report.