By Alfonso Fernandez
Washington, Jul 31 (efe-epa).- A $600-per-week federal payment for millions of Americans left unemployed by the coronavirus-triggered lockdowns is set to expire at midnight Friday amid partisan bickering in Washington.
Approved as part of a record $2.2 trillion Covid-19 relief package that the United States Congress passed in late March, that temporary supplement to state unemployment benefits had served as an economic lifeline for many households.
But states stopped paying it out last week, and it remains unclear if or when that federal payment will be resumed after the GOP-controlled Senate adjourned for the weekend with Democrats and Republicans hurling accusations at one another.
“President (Donald Trump) has been very clear for us to be aggressive and forward-leaning to make sure that (the unemployed) get protected. And yet, what we’re seeing is politics as usual from Democrats up on Capitol Hill,” White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said Friday at a press conference.
Meadows and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have been tasked by Trump to help work out a deal with Democratic leaders, but the two sides do not appear close to an agreement.
The president, for his part, had pushed for a temporary extension of the federal jobless benefit at the same $600-a-week level, but the Democrats rejected that approach.
“It’s a disgrace that they’re not negotiating,” Trump said Friday.
According to the most recent Labor Department figures, more than 17 million Americans are currently collecting jobless benefits amid the economic debacle triggered by the lockdowns.
The Senate on Thursday rejected a pair of relief bills: a GOP bill that would have cut the supplemental benefit from $600 to $200 a week and a roughly $3 trillion bill that was passed by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives in May and – among many other provisions, including nearly $1 trillion in aid to state and local governments – would have extended the jobless benefit at the $600-a-week level until year’s end.
Republicans oppose the House bill because they say the unemployment benefit is too generous and discourages people from returning to work, noting that in some cases the payments have exceeded what people had been earning at their jobs.
“We had a long discussion. And we just don’t think they understand the gravity of the problem. The bottom line is this is the most serious health problem and economic problem we’ve had in a century and in 75 years, (respectively), and it takes really good strong bold action, and they don’t quite get that,” the Senate’s minority leader, New York Democrat Chuck Schumer, told reporters after exiting one of the meetings late Thursday night.
The battles on Capitol Hill add even more pessimism to the US’s already somber economic outlook.
On Thursday, the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis said US gross domestic product contracted at an unprecedented annual rate of 32.9 percent in the second quarter due to the states’ stay-at-home orders.
The unemployment rate, meanwhile, stood at 11.1 percent at the end of June after having begun the year at 3.5 percent.
Economists are forecasting renewed GDP growth in the third quarter thanks to the gradual economic re-openings nationwide, although a spike in coronavirus cases in states such as California, Texas and Florida (home to more than one-fourth of the US population) has prompted some renewed lockdowns.
More than 153,000 deaths are attributed to Covid-19 in the US, equivalent to roughly 22.6 percent of the global total, according to the latest figures from Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center. EFE-EPA