NO VIRUS RE­LIEF BILL YET: WHITE HOUSE AND GOP AT ODDS OVER JOB­LESS AID

Chicago Sun-Times - - NATION/WORLD / BUSINESS - BY LISA MASCARO

WASH­ING­TON — Ne­go­ti­a­tions over a new COVID-19 res­cue bill were in flux Fri­day af­ter the White House floated cut­ting an un­em­ploy­ment ben­e­fits boost to as lit­tle as $100 and 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 on Mon­day. 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 star­tand-stop ef­forts, McCon­nell abruptly halted the roll­out of the Repub­li­cans’ $1 tril­lion plan, which was sup­posed to pro­vide a counter-of­fer to the Democrats’ $3 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 4 mil­lion, deaths rose by sev­eral thou­sand, to nearly 145,000, and the $600 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, tar­geted piece of leg­is­la­tion aimed di­rectly at the challenges we face right now.”

The GOP leader, who is up for re­elec­tion 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 $600 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 $200 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 $200 boost as too high.

A num­ber of dif­fer­ent so­lu­tions were be­ing dis­cussed, the of­fi­cial said Thurs­day, in­clud­ing drop­ping the add-on to $100.

Democrats warned time was run­ning out. The ben­e­fit of­fi­cially ex­pires July 31, but due to the way states process un­em­ploy­ment pay­ments, the cut­off is ef­fec­tively Satur­day.

Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., chair­man of the House Ways & Means Com­mit­tee, said the na­tion is on “the eve of an eco­nomic catas­tro­phe.”

The U.S. reg­is­tered its 18th straight week of new job­less claims top­ping 1 mil­lion, with an un­em­ploy­ment rate at 11%, higher than dur­ing last decade’s Great Re­ces­sion. A new AP-NORC poll said half of Amer­i­cans laid off now be­lieve their jobs will not re­turn.

JACQUELYN MARTIN/AP

Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell re­places his face mask Tues­day af­ter speak­ing at a news con­fer­ence on Capi­tol Hill.

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