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Portman pans $600 unemployment benefit but not ready to let it expire this month

Allison Stevens, States Newsroom

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WASHINGTON — Republican U.S. Sen. Rob Portman is departing from the Trump administration and other members of his party on extending unemployment insurance, a sticking point in ongoing discussions over the shape of the next coronavirus relief package.

On Tuesday, he told reporters he wants to extend a federal unemployment insurance benefit Congress authorized in March when it passed the $2.2 trillion CARES Act. The benefit, which gives recipients $600 a week in addition to state unemployment aid, is set to expire in the coming days.

More than 50 million Americans — including some 1.5 million Ohioans — have filed unemployment claims in recent months.

Portman panned the benefit amount on the press call, saying it disincentivizes work because the amount it provides is higher than many people would otherwise earn. His office pointed to independent reports finding that extending the $600 per week benefits through January 2021 would “lower economic output and employment” in 2021.

But the two-term senator isn’t ready to let it expire. “I don’t think that we should stop the unemployment insurance supplement on July 31,” he told reporters. “That’s the $600 additional federal benefit on top of the state benefit. But we should do it in a way that encourages work.”

The position is at odds with those in his party who oppose extending the $600-per-week benefit in the next coronavirus relief package. The White House and some Republicans want to slash the amount to about $200 a week, according to The Washington Post.

Senate Republicans are mulling ways to reduce the benefit, including a proposal to tailor unemployment payments to the state the recipient lives in, according to Politico. And Bloomberg reports that a short-term stand-alone extension is also under discussion.

The Bipartisan Policy Center has recommended reducing the benefit to $400 per week for two months and then reevaluating it.

Portman said employment incentives, such as giving people who return to work a bonus of $450 a week for six weeks, could be paired with any “potential compromise” on unemployment benefits. He also pointed to proposals that would expand tax credits for employers who retain employees while operations are suspended and who hire individuals who face barriers to employment, such as disabled veterans.

Democrats, meanwhile, want to extend the $600 per week benefit through January 2021.

The U.S. House passed a $3 trillion bill that would do so in May, and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate are pushing Republicans to pass it before the benefits expire this month.

Ohio’s Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown said reducing unemployment benefits amid the pandemic was “immoral,” “mean-spirited” and “really, really stupid” in a press call Wednesday.

Most people who have been laid off can’t find jobs in this economy, he said. Lowering the benefit would lead to a rise in homelessness, which could further spread the virus, he added.

Several points of contention

The debate over unemployment insurance is one of several points of contention in discussions over the fifth, and likely final, coronavirus relief package before the November elections.

Senate Republicans had yet to reach agreement with the White House over the GOP proposal as of Wednesday afternoon. Congress passed four coronavirus aid bills earlier this year totaling roughly $3 trillion, and some Republicans are reportedly reluctant to go beyond $1 trillion in additional aid for fear of reprisals among fiscal conservatives at the ballot box this fall.

On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) took to the Senate floor to outline the contours of the next GOP package, which he said will focus on “kids, jobs and health care.”

He called for incentives to hire and retain workers but did not mention extending employment benefits. Nor did he mention aid to cities and states or infrastructure support — provisions backed by Democrats that Portman also said he supported on Tuesday.

About a third of the Democrats’ $3 trillion bill would go to state, local, territorial and tribal governments, many of which are facing massive revenue shortfalls as a result of shutdown orders. It also includes funds to increase access to broadband internet service — a need that has intensified as much work, education, and civic and social life has shiften online.

Portman called the Democratic bill an unrealistic “wish list.” But he also discussed some areas of overlap with Democrats, such as aid to state and local governments, which he said need flexible federal funding to “weather the storm.”

In March, Congress set aside $150 billion to help municipalities respond to the pandemic. But the law doesn’t allow officials to use the funds to plug budget shortfalls and only provides direct aid to those with more than 500,000 people, such as Columbus.

Ohio is home to four of five cities that will bear the most immediate fiscal brunt of the pandemic, according to a report by the Brookings Institution. Columbus and Cincinnati top the list, with Toledo at No. 4 and Cleveland ranked fifth.

These cities are especially vulnerable to budget shortfalls because they rely more heavily than others on income taxes, which are more sensitive to declines to employment than property taxes and other sources of revenue, according to the report.

Portman also said now may be the time to help municipalities pay for “shovel-ready projects” that they can’t afford due to shortfalls in tax revenues. House Democrats passed a $1.5 trillion infrastructure package earlier this month, but Republicans dismissed it as “nonsense.”

In his floor speech Tuesday, McConnell said the GOP coronavirus package would provide $105 billion to help schools reopen safely and also called for incentives to hire and retain workers, funding for safe workplaces, vaccine development, testing and health care facilities and treatment, and protections for older people who may see spikes in insurance premiums.

He called for another round of federal loans to businesses and direct payments to individuals.  And he said the GOP proposal would include liability protections to shield schools, businesses and other organizations from coronavirus-related lawsuits as they reopen.

“Our country is in a complex middle ground between those two things,” he said. “We can’t go back to April, and we can’t snap our fingers and finish the vaccine overnight. We need to carve out a “new normal.”

The Trump administration, meanwhile, wants a payroll tax cut — an idea that hasn’t gained traction on Capitol Hill — and initially opposed more money for testing or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to The Washington Post. 

Portman said Tuesday he backed more money for testing even though not all of the money that has been appropriated has been spent yet. “We’ve gotta listen to the medical experts but also follow the data to be sure we’re not wasting money here.”

Democrats, meanwhile, slammed Republicans for delay and disarray as unemployment benefits move closer to expiration, a moratorium on evictions for some is about to end and schools prepare to reopen as infections rise across the country.

“Republicans seem to want to play chicken with pandemic relief and string everyone along with a bill and a process we all know is doomed to fail,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said on the Senate floor Tuesday.

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