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McConnell Vows to Block Benefits While Pushing Corporate Legal Immunity

The GOP is attempting to guarantee that companies are not held accountable for endangering the health of employees.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell puts on a mask in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill, on May 19, 2020, in Washington, D.C.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell vowed in a private call with House Republicans Wednesday that the enhanced unemployment benefits keeping millions of people afloat amid Great Depression-level joblessness will not be extended in the next coronavirus stimulus legislation, effectively endorsing a major income cut for a large swath of the U.S. population.

The boosted unemployment insurance — which provides an additional $600 per week on top of state benefits and is set to expire on July 31 — “will not be in the next bill,” the Kentucky Republican reportedly told his GOP colleagues, calling the fact that some people are making slightly more money on unemployment than they did from their jobs “crazy.”

Progressives have said this is a reason to raise wages, not roll back benefits.

Ernie Tedeschi, a former Treasury Department economist, estimated that if enhanced unemployment benefits are not extended, “unemployed workers will effectively get a pay cut of 50-75% overnight.”

In a series of tweets Wednesday evening, Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) pointed to a Brookings Institution analysis showing that boosted unemployment benefits offset around half of all lost wages and salaries in April. House Democrats passed legislation last week that would extend the boosted unemployment benefits through January of next year.

“Removing that support while eliminating access to food, shelter, and healthcare would inflict untold suffering and could cause widespread civic unrest,” Beyer warned. “Cutting back federal assistance at the height of the crisis would mean self-inflicted disaster, devastation, and additional deaths. That must not happen.”

McConnell, whose remarks during the private call were first reported by Politico, also said he will continue advocating aggressively for the inclusion of corporate liability protections in the next stimulus package, but did not provide a timeline for the legislation.

The Kentucky Republican’s effort to shield corporations from legal responsibility for workers who contract Covid-19 on the job has drawn outrage from consumer advocacy groups, small businesses, and seniors (pdf).

McConnell’s push for corporate liability protections and opposition to extending beefed-up unemployment benefits are interlinked: While urging states to reopen and pressuring people to return to potentially unsafe workplaces by moving to end benefits, the GOP is simultaneously attempting to guarantee that companies are not held accountable for endangering the health of employees by bringing them back prematurely amid a pandemic.

On its website, the Trump Labor Department has stated that general fear of contracting Covid-19 is not sufficient reason to reject “suitable” work and still remain eligible for unemployment benefits. The Labor Department is also openly urging states to help employers report workers who decide to stay home from their jobs out of concern about the coronavirus.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), one of the architects of the expanded unemployment benefits, said in a statement Tuesday that the Trump White House is “pushing workers to risk their health for his political benefit.”

“With nearly 1 in 5 Americans out of work, Donald Trump’s plan is to cut off the boost to unemployment benefits and shower his wealthy buddies with more tax cuts,” Wyden said after President Donald Trump expressed his opposition to extending the enhanced unemployment benefits during a lunch with Senate Republicans Tuesday.

Some Republicans appear to be concerned about the potential backlash that could result from ending boosted unemployment insurance at a time when more than 36 million people across the U.S. are newly out of work due to the coronavirus crisis.

The Washington Post’s Jeff Stein reported Wednesday that one idea “circulating around GOP offices” is converting unemployment benefits to a one-time lump sum payment, a proposal that analysts met with significant skepticism.

Some Republican lawmakers, according to Stein, are pushing for a “dramatic reduction” in additional benefits to $300-$400 per week, down from $600. Stein noted that he has not discussed the matter with every GOP Senate office and added that “there are many who certainly want it gone altogether.”

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