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Coronavirus bill hits hurdles as Sanders threatens to stall package over bid to change unemployment aid

Coronavirus bill hits hurdles as Sanders threatens to stall package over bid to change unemployment aid

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Bernie Sanders said Wednesday afternoon he might torpedo the Senate’s compromise stimulus package unless Republican senators dropped their objections about what they called a “massive drafting error” related to unemployment benefits, in the latest twist to a process that has been marked by delays and last-minute hurdles.

“In my view, it would be an outrage to prevent working-class Americans to receive the emergency unemployment assistance included in this legislation,” Sanders said in a statement, also posted on social media.

“Unless these Republican Senators drop their objections, I am prepared to put a hold on this bill until stronger conditions are imposed on the $500 billion corporate welfare fund to make sure that any corporation receiving financial assistance under this legislation does not lay off workers, cut wages or benefits, ship jobs overseas, or pay workers poverty wages,” he continued.

An objection by a single senator would prevent the Senate from quickly passing the bill by unanimous consent, although it remained possible that the chamber could pass the legislation by voice vote or roll-call vote. Fox News is told lawmakers are leaning toward approving the bill via voice vote, in which senators in the chamber shout “aye” or “nay,” with the loudest side winning.

Then, late Wednesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said unanimous consent was a nonstarter in the House, and implied that quick passage in the lower chamber may be unrealistic.

“That’s not gonna work,” she told reporters shortly after 7:30 p.m. ET. “Republicans have told us that’s not possible from their said. … What I’d like to see — because this a $2 trillion bill — I’d like to see a good debate on the floor.”

“What I’d like to see — because this a $2 trillion bill — I’d like to see a good debate on the floor.”

— House speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

Fox News has been told repeatedly in the 6 p.m. ET hour that the “hope” continues to be to advance the bill for a vote Wednesday night in the Senate. But, the Senate still doesn’t have bill text, nearly 18 hours after an agreement was announced at around 1 a.m. ET Wednesday morning. Even then, senators would still have to agree as to how to handle the bill on the floor — dictating whether there is any debate, amendments and how or when senators would actually vote on the measure. The upshot is that a House vote may be delayed to Friday at the earliest.

The concern from Sens. Lindsey Graham, Tim Scott, R-S.C., Ben Sasse, R-Neb., and Rick Scott, R-Fla., is that the current version of the bill could pay workers more in unemployment benefits than they’re currently making, by sticking a $600 per week payment on top of ordinary benefits that are calculated as a percentage of income. This could disrupt the labor market further, the lawmakers warn.

Graham shot back at Sanders’ latest warning in a series of posts on Twitter. “Only in Senator @BernieSanders  world does it make sense to pay people more NOT to work than TO work,” Graham wrote. “I am all for making peoples salaries whole. However, I am not for increasing people’s salary through the unemployment insurance system.”

Democrats and economists have countered that the point of the new unemployment benefit is, in fact, to make peoples’ salaries whole, and that companies could simply raise wages to compete and attract workers.

“The weird thing about this hypothetical ‘generous unemployment pay will discourage people from entering critical industries’ is… they could just raise wages?” Alex Godofsky wrote on Twitter. “Amazon has already raised wages. Like, it’s okay if wages – and prices – go up for a while. It’s fine.”

Others have noted that the unemployment benefit boost would expire in the summer. In an article entitled “Republican Senators’ Objection to Expanded Unemployment Benefits Makes Little Sense,” Josh Barro began by noting that “these are unemployment benefits, and you generally have to have been laid off to claim them.”

“We will continue to have virus-mitigation measures that create mass unemployment for a significant period, and even after those measures can be relaxed through much of the country, it will take some time for employers to re-ingest all the previously laid-off workers,” Barro wrote. “In fact, it’s likely that the shutdowns will persist long enough that the enhanced benefits will need to be extended. If we’re in a situation by July where all the shutdowns are over and employers are eagerly hiring and our biggest concern is too many people don’t want to go back to work, I will be overjoyed and very surprised.”

But, Graham has nevertheless suggested a larger problem.

“This proposal will make it hard for our employers to maintain their workforce, particularly in the area of healthcare, thus, significantly delaying the economic recovery and impairing our health and safety,” Graham said. “Simple Fix: Cap unemployment benefits at full salary before the crisis.”

The Republicans have said they will oppose fast-tracking the $2 trillion coronavirus response package unless what they called the “massive drafting error” in the legislation, which they say would create an incentive for employers to lay off employees, is fixed.

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“You want to destroy what’s left of the economy? Pass it the way it’s written,” Graham, R-S.C., said in a press conference. “If you want to help people, pay them their wages, but don’t pay them more not to work.”

“A massive drafting error in the current version of the coronavirus relief legislation could have devastating consequences: Unless this bill is fixed, there is a strong incentive for employees to be laid off instead of going to work. This isn’t an abstract, philosophical point — it’s an immediate, real-world problem,” Tim Scott, Sasse and Graham said in a statement.

The White House and Senate leaders had come to an agreement on the $2 trillion package that is designed to boost the economy and provide aid to workers and businesses affected by the closing down of much of daily life in response to the coronavirus crisis. Leaders have emphasized the urgency of getting the package passed as quickly as possible in order to get assistance to Americans in need.

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In the press conference, Scott gave the example of someone in South Carolina making $20 an hour, or $800 a week, who could get up to $326 of unemployment benefits in the state, followed by another $600 a week in the federal benefit, meaning they would be earning more than their normal salary.

“This legislation would not stop at 100 percent of your income, this legislation would allow you in unemployment to make more than you do in employment,” Scott said. “We know that that is a drafting error and we are simply providing an amendment to fix that so you do not make more in unemployment than you do when you’re working.”

“Under this proposal … under unemployment you’d be making $24.07 an hour in South Carolina,” Graham said. “There are a lot of jobs that in South Carolina don’t pay $24.07 an hour.”

Graham also opened the door to the possibility that this was not a drafting error but said he was “concerned” that it was the explicit intention of Democrats.

“If this is not a drafting error then it’s the worst idea I’ve seen in a long time and that’s saying a lot given the fact that we’re in Washington,” he said.

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The lawmakers instead are working on an amendment to fix the “problem” by making the unemployment benefit 100 percent of someone’s salary. Graham said they would soon know whether or not it was a drafting error by whether or not their amendment is opposed by Democrats in the chamber.

Fox News’ Chad Pergram contributed to this report.

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