CEDAR RAPIDS — Disagreement over the continuation of a $600-a-week federal supplemental unemployment benefit is likely to be the biggest hurdle to the next phase of coronavirus relief, Sen. Chuck Grassley said Wednesday.
The Iowa Republican believes the GOP’s $1 trillion Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection and Schools (HEALS) Act “charts a reasonable path forward to provide more help for Americans in the public health and economic crisis.”
At the same time, Grassley, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, acknowledged “there’s big differences” between the bill House Democrats approved and what Senate Republicans are proposing, so “we’re going to have to, obviously, put it to negotiations with our Democratic colleagues.”
The biggest point of contention will be whether to continue the $600-a-week unemployment benefit or to reduce that to $200 per week for two months before moving to 70 percent of a worker’s salary, which is the GOP plan.
The supplement is justified, Grassley said, because the unemployment is not the responsibility of those workers thrown out of their jobs because of COVID-19. However, with nearly two-thirds of those people earning more on unemployment than if they were working, the federal government has become an “unfair competitor” with businesses trying to bring employees back to work.
The GOP plan is being criticized by left-leaning groups for not increasing food stamp benefits and housing assistance to help prevent evictions.
“Rather than propose a package commensurate with the scale of harm we are seeing,” Sue Dinsdale, director of Iowa Citizen Action, said about the impact COVID-19 and unemployment are having on Iowans, “Republicans in the Senate have proposed a package that does little to address growing hunger, unemployment, loss of health care coverage and state and local budget shortfalls.”
The unemployment benefit, a second round of $1,200 stimulus payments and returning to work will help address those issues. The GOP plan also includes funding for child care and changes the rules to allow state and local governments to use federal aid to offset revenue losses.
At the same time, right-leaning groups are criticizing Congress, particularly Republicans, for spending too much. FreedomWorks, for example, said the COVID-19 relief packages have produced a budget deficit that as a percentage of GDP has not been seen since the end of World War II.
Although there are some good parts in the latest proposal, it doesn’t include a payroll tax holiday, decoupling health savings accounts from high-deductible health plans, and school choice, all FreedomWorks priorities.
“We’re hearing from a lot of people who say the $3 trillion that we already put out there is too much and where’s the end of this and all that sort of thing,” Grassley said.
Although there have been other pandemics, this is first time the federal response has been to shut down the economy “so we have responsibility to get it opened up,” Grassley said.
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