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Senator sees 'enormous hurt' coming when benefits, loans expire at the end of the month.

PMG FILE PHOTO - Ron WydenDemocratic Sen. Ron Wyden took a shot at Republican colleagues and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for holding up a follow-up coronavirus aid plan, even while he says, "this takes a bipartisan approach."

Wyden spoke Friday, Dec. 11, barely two weeks before unemployment benefits under the previous CARES Act expire for an estimated 12 million Americans, including more than 70,000 Oregonians.

He was the chief author of provisions that made self-employed and gig workers newly eligible for aid and extended maximum benefits from 26 to 39 weeks. Both provisions will end Dec. 26.

"There's going to be enormous hurt immediately," Wyden told Oregon reporters during a conference call from Washington, D.C.

For unemployed workers, their families and businesses that have relied on federal grants and loans to stay afloat, he added, "they just feel they are getting hit by a wrecking ball."

Nevertheless, he said, "I have made it clear that means working through Hanukkah, the winter solstice, Christmas, if that is what it takes to get this help."

Wyden is Jewish.

The final day of Hanukkah this year is Dec. 18, which is also the new deadline for Congress to extend federal spending authority — or risk a partial government shutdown — and attach to it a new coronavirus aid plan.

Wyden is the top Democrat on the Finance Committee, which writes tax legislation in the Senate. Unemployment benefits are funded by state taxes on employers but are overseen by the U.S. Department of Labor.

A bipartisan group has floated an overall plan for $908 billion — one that President-elect Joe Biden says is a starting point. It's less than the $3.4 trillion and $2.2 trillion plans passed earlier this year by the Democratic majority in the House, but still almost twice as much as a $500 billion plan floated by McConnell. Some Republican senators say that amount is still too much.

McConnell said he was willing to shelve a much-criticized liability shield for businesses against lawsuits related to the coronavirus pandemic, but only if Democrats drop their insistence on including aid for state and local governments in the plan. That call for aid has drawn bipartisan support from the governors, including Republican Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas and Democrat Andrew Cuomo of New York.

Wyden criticized the Senate Republican plan, which proposes only $300 per week in extra unemployment benefits instead of the $600-per-week payments he insisted on as part of the CARES Act.

"The Senate Republican leadership has put out a proposal that barely touches unemployment insurance," Wyden said.

"Mitch McConnell seems to be focused exclusively on the powerful special interests that are insisting on his just focusing on this COVID package blanketing them with liability protection.

"When he gets liability, he is not going to have much incentive for economic relief for our families and businesses. Even by D.C. standards, that is a heartless bait-and-switch."

Wyden: Renew aid

Wyden has proposed a renewal of the $600-per-week extra payments and other aid to unemployed workers and struggling businesses that have drawn loans under the Paycheck Protection Program. Loans can be forgiven if businesses comply with requirements such as keeping workers on payrolls.

State economists have said that Oregon's state tax collections remained stable, instead of taking a nosedive as was first feared, because Oregon individuals received $7 billion and businesses $7 billion through the CARES Act.

In response to a question, Wyden didn't specify how long those programs should continue.

"But we need to make this long enough to provide some certainty and predictability that we will get to the other side" of the pandemic, he said. "You need enough money and enough certainty and enough predictability so that we do not lose more Oregon businesses and harm our workers essentially between now and then."

Although vaccines against the coronavirus are being made available under emergency-use authorizations by the Food and Drug Administration, officials estimate it will be late spring or early summer before most Americans have access to them.

Wyden said even when Joe Biden takes the oath as president on Jan. 20, it still will take time for Congress to approve his requests, so it is important that Congress acts now. "He is not going to be able to magically pass an economic package," Wyden said.

The $787 billion economic stimulus that Biden oversaw as vice president in 2009, known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, was signed into law a month after Barack Obama became president and Biden vice president. It passed with no Republican support in the House and only three Republican votes in the Senate; Democrats then had majorities in both chambers.

The House will return in January with a thinner Democratic majority.

A scheduled Jan. 5 runoff for two seats in Georgia will determine which party will control the Senate. Democrats must unseat both Republican incumbents to force a 50-50 tie, which then can be broken by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.

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