WASHINGTON – The $600 boost millions of Americans receive on top of their weekly unemployment benefits is set to run out as Congress dives into what is likely to be contentious negotiations over the future of the program.

The increased benefits mark one of the most divisive issues on Capitol Hill: Republicans say Americans make more money on unemployment – thus disincentivizing many from returning to work; Democrats and activists point to the still alarmingly high unemployment rate and argue that slashing the benefits could be dire for families who need them. 

The additional $600 in weekly jobless benefits provided by the federal government is officially set to end July 31. States will pay it only through Saturday or Sunday, depending on the state, because unemployment payment schedules end on a Saturday or Sunday and the benefits end July 31, a Friday. 

House Democrats pushed for the $600 boost, which bolsters state benefits that average  $370 a week, to be extended until at least January, but many Republicans on Capitol Hill dubbed the extension a nonstarter and want the program changed or replaced with a back-to-work incentive in hopes of jump-starting the economy and getting shuttered businesses to rehire laid-off workers. 

Members of the Trump administration spent the day meeting with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle about the next package and the president’s priorities. President Donald Trump told reporters he would be briefed later Tuesday evening about the discussions, including the future of the boosted unemployment program. 

“I was against that original decision but they did that. It still worked out well because it gave people a lifeline, a real lifeline,” the president said of the $600 boost in benefits. “They’re thinking about doing 70% of the amount. The amount would be the same but doing it in a little bit smaller initial amounts so that people will want to go back to work as opposed to making so much money that they really don’t have to.”

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While Democrats have pushed to extend unemployment, many acknowledge that the program may be altered. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said Tuesday the $600 amount wasn’t a “red line,” but he wanted a longer-term plan for the program “to give people confidence and the sense of well-being and security in this very troubled time.”

The extra weekly payment of $600 was part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, a $1.8 trillion package Congress passed in March to help the nation weather the economic storm brought by the coronavirus pandemic, which shuttered businesses, slowed spending and erased a staggering 22 million jobs in just two months. 

The unemployment rate in June fell to 11.1%, slightly down from its peak in April when it hit a jarring 14.7%. The numbers are a far cry from the 3.5% rate in February before the pandemic started ravaging the U.S. economy. 

Many Democrats and activists pointed to the potential impacts on families should the boosted unemployment benefits end. Roughly half of millennial and Gen X mortgage borrowers say they or someone in their household receive unemployment benefits, and many are concerned about paying their mortgage once the benefits end, according to a report from LendingTree. 

Throughout Tuesday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows met with leaders on both sides of the U.S. Capitol to hash out the specifics in the next package, which Mnuchin said he hoped to have across the finish line by the end of the month. 

“We just are making a lot of progress,” Mnuchin said. “We’re determined to get this done by the end of next week.”

Meadows said the meetings outlined the president’s vision for the next package but were also about “listening” to the ideas and concerns from lawmakers. 

“We’re very early on in the negotiations and the discussions,” he said. “To put it in a football term, we’re on our own 20-yard line.”

The meetings included one with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, the two top Democrats on Capitol Hill. They were the first formal negotiations between Democrats and the administration over the package. 

After the meeting, both Pelosi and Schumer told reporters they needed to see the Republicans’ bill before talks could move forward. “We have been united in our priorities,” Pelosi said, pointing to the bill House Democrats passed in May. “I think their delay is their disarray.”

Since the outbreak first hit the USA, Congress and the White House have approved more than $3 trillion in aid, passing a series of bills that provided loans and grants to businesses hurt by the pandemic, relief checks to Americans, expanded unemployment for laid-off workers and funds for increased testing and vaccine research. It has been months since the last package passed, and there are sharp partisan divisions over the next phase.

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House Democrats passed a $3 trillion bill in May that includes an extension of the $600 increase in unemployment benefits, a second $1,200 relief check for individuals and families, about $1 trillion for state and local governments, additional worker protections and more money for testing and contact tracing. 

Senate Republicans rejected the House bill and are likely to release their own proposal this week. Among their priorities: more funds for schools to reopen in the fall and liability protections for businesses worried about being sued by customers who contract COVID-19 in their reopened restaurants and shops.

The president outlined his own priorities, namely a payroll tax cut that he argued would boost economic growth. Republicans have pushed back against the proposal for  months, but Mnuchin and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said Republicans planned to include it. 

Including it in the bill is likely to add another hurdle as many congressional Republicans continue to resist such a measure. 

South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, said he was “not a fan of that.” 

“I’ve made that pretty clear. I don’t think it’s something that changes anyone’s behavior and has trust fund implications,” he said. “I just think there are better ways to do it.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID-19 bill: $600 unemployment boost will end as Congress talks



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