Wyden: No Senate talks in sight to break deadlock on benefits
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden was all dressed up Friday, July 31, but the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee had no place to go and no one to see.
Wyden spoke with Oregon reporters Friday, when the $600-per-week extra unemployment benefits supported by the federal government officially expired — they actually ended in Oregon for the week ending July 25 — and there were no talks in sight between congressional Democrats and Republicans, or the House and Senate, as to whether the benefits will continue in any form.
Talks did begin between Democratic congressional leaders and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, although no agreement was in sight.
Wyden's Capitol Hill office is a few doors down from the Finance Committee office, where he and Chairman Charles Grassley of Iowa negotiated the original amount with Mnuchin as part of the CARES Act four months ago.
Wyden said the Senate's majority Republicans and leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky knew this deadline was coming up. But it was only days ago that they made a counteroffer to the coronavirus relief plan passed May 15 by the Democratic-led House, which included a straight five-month extension of the extra benefit in its $3 trillion HEROES Act.
Wyden said the counteroffer — a reduction to $200 per week, phasing down to a cap of 70% on previously earned wages — was almost an insult. Republicans proposed it as part of their $1 trillion relief plan, although some GOP senators are balking at that price tag.
"There are not senators walking down the corridors and going into rooms," Wyden said in a conference call from his office. "Mitch McConnell should have been doing that going back months. But that is not what is happening today."
The government reported Thursday, July 30, that the gross domestic product, the measure of goods and services generated by the U.S. economy, fell by 9.5% in the second quarter this year — at an annualized rate of nearly 33%, the worst decline in modern times. Meanwhile, the number of new unemployment claims for regular benefits rose by 1.4 million, and for people newly eligible under the CARES Act for benefits such as self-employed workers, 830,000.
"When the economy has taken such a hit, the Republicans are slashing the best tool to respond to what people saw in the headlines. What they ought to be doing is supporting the idea that I authored originally," Wyden said.
"I want him (McConnell) to listen to workers and come back on Monday (Aug. 3) ready to negotiate an agreement that includes what we are talking about with respect to unemployment."
Wyden said he did an interview with the largest-circulation newspaper in Kentucky, where the unemployment rate in June was 4.3%, compared with 11.2% in Oregon.
Wyden has offered a more complex proposal tying the $600-per-week benefit to a state's three-month average unemployment rate. For each percentage-point drop in that rate, the extra benefit would decline by $100 per month until the average rate reached 6%.
But Wyden said he's ready to back the House's simple extension as the fastest way to continue the flow of money to more than 20 million workers.
"I'm sitting here looking at ways we can promote this package," he said.
That plan includes money for aid to state governments, plus aid for state and local governments to expand mail voting for the Nov. 3 general election. Oregon is one of five states to conduct all elections by mail — Wyden was the first senator to win a statewide mail election back in 1996 — and Wyden said President Donald Trump speaks empty words when he raises questions about the security of mail balloting, which has been in effect in Oregon since the 2000 presidential election.
"He always says it's riddled with fraud," Wyden said. "We Oregonians know that's a lot of baloney."
Wyden said two recent Republican secretaries of state — Dennis Richardson, who died in 2019, and interim appointee Bev Clarno — have fully supported Oregon's system. "If you asked most Oregonians, they would say 'I like voting at my kitchen table,'" Clarno said on a June 28 segment of "60 Minutes," the CBS news magazine.
NOTE: Edits to update there are talks, but not involving most senators.
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