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Senate Democrats look to trim weekly unemployment benefits boost but add a month of payments in stimulus bill

Jobless Americans would get a smaller weekly boost to unemployment benefits but receive those payments for an additional month under a last-minute revision of the Senate’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package on Friday.

The bill, which now differs from the House version passed last week, calls for providing a $300 a week federal enhancement and for extending two key pandemic jobless benefits programs through September.

The new arrangement would also make the first $10,200 worth of benefits tax-free.

This is a significant change from the House bill, which would provide an extra $400 a week through August 29 and continue the two pandemic programs for the same period. The House bill does not contain the tax provision.

But West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin — the Democrats’ crucial 50th vote — does not yet support the plan, but has been supportive of a Republican proposal to extend $300-a-week federal benefits through July.

Progress on the overall bill paused Friday afternoon as senators negotiated the issue.

The Senate was voting Friday on a series of amendments in a process known as a “vote-a-rama” before moving to a final vote on the entire relief package.

Extending special pandemic programs

The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program provides benefits to freelancers, gig workers, independent contractors and certain people affected by the pandemic, while the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program increases the duration of payments for those in the traditional state unemployment system.

Congress created these two temporary programs, along with a $600 weekly boost that lasted four months, in its $2 trillion relief package nearly a year ago to help cushion laid-off workers during the pandemic-fueled economic downturn. The programs were extended and the $300 weekly enhancement was added as part of lawmakers’ $900 billion relief deal passed in December.

Stressing that millions of struggling Americans remain out of work, President Joe Biden called for providing a $400 boost and continuing the programs through the end of September as part of the massive relief package he unveiled just before taking office.

Asked about the Senate Democratic unemployment insurance agreement, a senior administration official said the White House is “definitely good with it,” and pointed out making the first $10,200 in benefits no longer being taxable was “something the administration had been trying to figure out how to address.”

Racing toward a deadline

The differences in the Senate and House bills, however, are one more issue the two chambers have to work out before they send the final legislation to the President for his signature.

Lawmakers’ self-imposed deadline of March 14 for passing the relief package is fast approaching. That’s when out-of-work Americans will start running out of benefits in the two programs, which will then phase out over the subsequent month. The $300 enhancement also ends next weekend.

An estimated 11.4 million workers will lose their unemployment benefits between mid-March and mid-April unless Congress acts, a recent study by The Century Foundation found.

Even if lawmakers finish the bill in coming days, some jobless Americans may see a lapse in benefits since it can take a few weeks for state unemployment agencies to program the new provisions into their systems.

Article Topic Follows: Politics

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