On May 11, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters that he had "not yet felt the urgency" of passing another Covid-19 relief package despite skyrocketing unemployment claims and warnings of a prolonged economic recession.
Now, more than two months later, persistent inaction by the Republican-controlled Senate has pushed 30 million Americans to the brink of a steep financial cliff as federally enhanced unemployment benefits are set to lapse in just 24 hours barring a last-minute deal in Congress that appears all but impossible.
"The Republicans are playing with the lives of 30 million people, not to mention the recovery of the entire U.S. economy."
—Rep. Don Beyer
In recent weeks, McConnell justified delaying passage of another stimulus bill on the grounds that state reopenings could jumpstart the U.S. economy, rendering another relief package unnecessary.
But that prediction has not borne out; Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell warned Wednesday that the "pace of recovery looks like it has slowed."
"There's probably going to be a long tail where a large number of people are struggling to get back to work," Powell said as coronavirus cases, hospitalizations, and deaths continue to surge across the nation, forcing states to pause their nascent reopenings.
On Thursday, the Commerce Department announced that the U.S. economy shrank at a record-shattering 32.9% annual rate last quarter. New Labor Department numbers also out Thursday showed that 1.43 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits last week, bringing the total number of people in the U.S. who are either receiving unemployment insurance (UI) or waiting for approval to more than 33 million.
"The policy response to this should be clear," Josh Bivens, research director at the Economic Policy Institute, wrote in a blog post Thursday. "Congress and the president need to restore the extra $600 in unemployment insurance so long as the job market remains damaged, and needs to provide large-scale, flexible aid to state and local governments to keep the coming revenue shortfalls facing these governments from translating into spending cuts and austerity."
Economist Jared Bernstein, senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, called the new Commerce Department numbers the "ugliest GDP report any of us have ever seen."
"Really sorry for yelling at you at 8:46 am," Bernstein added in an all-caps tweet, "but vital, enhanced UI benefits expire tomorrow because congressional Republicans failed to extend them. 'Malpractice' is far too weak a word for this epic, cruel failure."
REALLY SORRY FOR YELLING AT YOU AT 8:46AM BUT VITAL, ENHANCED UI BENEFITS EXPIRE TOMORROW BECAUSE CONGRESSIONAL Rs FAILED TO EXTEND THEM. "MALPRACTICE" IS FAR TOO WEAK A WORD FOR THIS EPIC, CRUEL FAILURE.
— Jared Bernstein (@econjared) July 30, 2020
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It remains to be seen whether the ominous new economic figures will spur congressional negotiators to reach a deal to prevent the federal unemployment lifeline from lapsing for at least a week, causing a massive drop in income for tens of millions of people.
"We are nowhere close to a deal," White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said Wednesday after leaving a meeting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).
The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, estimated this week that the GOP plan to reduce the federal UI boost to $200 per week would cut total weekly unemployment payments "from a national average of $920.68 per week to $520.68 per week."
"Rent is due this week. Unemployment benefits expire this week. The eviction moratorium is gone. Congress can—and must—prevent this catastrophe."
—Sen. Elizabeth Warren
"If enacted, the proposal would have devastating consequences for American families, businesses, and the economy," wrote Century Foundation senior fellow Andrew Stettner.
Compounding the pain of the likely benefit lapse is the fact that another rent payment is due for many Americans in just two days. Last Friday, as Common Dreams reported, a federal moratorium on evictions expired, leaving the more than 12 million people in the U.S. who live in homes with federally backed mortgages vulnerable to being forced onto the streets.
"Rent is due this week. Unemployment benefits expire this week. The eviction moratorium is gone," tweeted Sen. Elizabeth Warren. "Congress can—and must—prevent this catastrophe."
After refusing to put forth his own plan for months and blocking House Democrats' proposal to extend the $600-per-week unemployment payments through January of next year, McConnell on Wednesday attempted to blame Pelosi for the coming lapse in benefits—a narrative Democrats immediately rejected.
"Let's get a few things clear: This is happening because when House Democrats passed an extension 10 weeks ago Senate Republicans said they needed a 'pause,'" tweeted Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.). "Then they didn't do a single thing until it was too late. Then they introduced a bill that is terrible, stupid, and unworkable. Even the Republicans hate their own bill, there is nearly universal agreement that it is bad policy."
"The Republicans are playing with the lives of 30 million people," Beyer added, "not to mention the recovery of the entire U.S. economy."