Senate GOP torn on how to address expiring COVID-19 unemployment boosts

The coronavirus unemployment benefit expires July 31.

For Nicole Van Hoff, the additional $600 a week she now receives in jobless benefits from the federal government is a crucial life line -- one Congress created in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic that crippled the U.S. economy and sent the unemployment rate soaring just over 15%.

The single mother and marketing professional is now deeply fearful that if Congress does not renew the program -- which expires on July 31 -- she will have no choice but to uproot her children.

Van Hoff has called Oregon home for 38 years. Her children have spent their whole lives there. But ever since COVID-19 caused a shut down of economic prospects in her home town in March, Van Hoff has relied on unemployment supplements approved by Congress to support her family.

"Moving and starting over after 38 years in Portland will be the best option if I lose this financial help," VanHoff said.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has told Senate Republicans that he expects the next pandemic relief bill to come to the Senate floor just after the Senate returns from its July 4th recess. As the senators work up against the impending end of the unemployment benefit, a debate over whether to extend these enhanced jobless benefits is beginning to come to a head.

The relief bill passed by the House would expand that program through 2021. But in the Republican-controlled Senate, favor for the program has soured.

During a Senate Finance Committee hearing Tuesday, Chairman Chuck Grassley said he was concerned that the federal government was making Americans want to stay out of the workplace. The worry is that the $600 benefit means many are making more on unemployment than if they were to return to work.

"Businesses consider the federal government an unfair competitor when the federal government will pay people not to work more than they could get paid for working," Grassley said. "We want to expand the economy."

His concerns were echoed by other Republicans on the committee, including Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and Sen. Pat Toomey, R-R.I.

New research released by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office earlier this month bolsters the case for those who want to end the boosted jobless benefits.

The CBO assessed that if the $600 unemployment benefit were to continue for the next six months, five out of six Americans will receive benefits that exceed what they could earn from working and that employment rates would be lower than if the benefits were to cease.

Still, Republicans seem to be grappling with how best to handle the upcoming July 31 cutoff and Grassley said Wednesday he's not for scrapping the program entirely.

"We're going to have to have something different," the Iowa Republican said. "I don't think it can end altogether."

On Tuesday, Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., told reporters that there's been no conclusion on extending the $600 bonus.

"I think we just need to figure that out," Blunt said.

Grassley told ABC News he believes that something must be done so that there is "not a cliff on August the first."

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said he thinks he has a possible answer in the form of $450 a week "back to work" bonuses, that would be paid out to individuals transitioning off of the federal unemployment benefit.

"I think what's gaining steam is the idea that we all want to get people back to work and a recognition that the $600 is a disincentive in some cases," Portman said. "I think everybody knows we need a solution to that and a work bonus, I think, is a creative way to do it."

Portman said he believes his proposal could be a compromise between Republicans and Democrats.

"It seems to me there is a strong view among Republicans not to continue that and a strong view among Democrats to continue -- and we need some middle ground," Portman said.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said that he's "open" to Portman's idea and said it was what he was mostly thinking about as the Senate begins considering legislating.

But for many who are currently receiving unemployment assistance, like Van Hoff, assertions that workers may not want to return to employment are "almost offensive."

"For someone to tell me that I would rather not work and sit around at home with two little kids all day long feels ludicrous to me," Van Hoff said. "Being able to be in the workforce and put skills that I've worked hard -- and implement those -- does more for me than just bring home a paycheck."

On Friday, following the release of May's jobless numbers that showed the unemployment rate declining to 13.3% and not rising to the near 20% that economists had predicted, President Donald Trump appeared in the Rose Garden to tout the unexpected economic upturn.

"This leads to a long period of growth," Trump said. "Now we're opening, and we're opening with a bang."

Democrats have expressed concern that Republicans may follow Trump's lead and count the May joblessness numbers as a signal that additional unemployment benefits are not needed.

"For the president to say the recovery has arrived and everything is turning into sunshine is just going to perpetuate the economic injustice," Senate Finance Committee Ranking Member Ron Wyden said Tuesday.

Wyden, D-Ore., has proposed his own solution for gradually scaling back unemployment benefits over time. His proposal would tie the amount of unemployment bonus received to the unemployment rate.

That idea has garnered some support. Thune said he might support a "ramp down" of benefits, but it is unclear if this idea has gained any robust support from Republicans.

Nonetheless, senators are up against a tight deadline to approve the next pandemic relief legislation and negotiate a final solution with the House that can be sent to the president's desk for his signature before the unemployment boost runs out.

It will be in a race against the clock to make a determination on how to proceed when they return from their July 4th recess. They'll have two weeks to find a solution before the benefits are slashed entirely, leaving millions of families, like Van Hoff's, without a clear path forward.

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