CHN: As Deadlines Loom, Action on Pandemic Package Awaits the Senate’s Return

In less than two weeks, the moratorium on evictions from federally subsidized or backed rental units will expire; so will the $600 per week in Pandemic Unemployment Compensation. While the House of Representatives passed its HEROES Act, with more than $3 trillion to address the pandemic, the Senate did not act before leaving for the July 4 recess. Senators will return on July 20 with little time to come up with its approach for negotiating a bill with the House.

The need for action is urgent. Close to one in five households were not able to pay their rent in the past month according to the most recent Census Bureau’s weekly Household Pulse survey. For Latinx and Black households, it was one in four. The fear is that with local, state, and federal moratoria on evictions ending, there will be a massive surge in evictions without emergency rental assistance. Similarly, data show alarming numbers of households that report not having enough to eat in the past week – close to one in five Latinx and Black households with children, for example. With surging COVID-19 cases likely to lead to more job loss, the failure of Congress to extend unemployment assistance and provide housing and increased SNAP benefits by the end of July could result in hardship not seen since the Great Depression.

The position of Senate Republicans has shifted in recent weeks. At first, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) was reluctant to take up any bill, wanting a wait and see approach after the enactment of the CARES legislation. He suggested that states with huge revenue shortfalls consider filing for bankruptcy. He has also made protection of businesses, schools, and health care providers from lawsuits related to COVID-19 a top priority. More recently, with unemployment still high and the COVID-19 caseload surging, he has talked about a $1 trillion package that might include another direct payment to individuals and families. He has also acknowledged that a new bill could include aid to states and localities, specifically for coronavirus-related costs.

While this is movement, it is still far from the scope of the House’s HEROES bill, which includes $1 trillion for state and local aid alone. Plummeting state and local revenues (expected to be down $555 billion through FY2022, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities) and layoffs or furloughs of 1.5 million state and local government workers, coupled with dramatically rising need for services, makes help for states and localities urgent. The HEROES bill also includes another round of an expanded $1,200 per person payment, extension of the $600 per week unemployment benefit through the end of this year, $100 billion in rental assistance for those falling behind in rent as well as an extension of the moratorium on evictions, increased SNAP and other nutrition benefits, improved low-income tax credits and much more. That means there is a lot of ground to cover to get to a final bill.

Senate Democrats have been introducing separate pieces of legislation they would like to see incorporated in a COVID package. Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Senator Ron Wyden (the senior Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, D-OR) have introduced a bill (S. 4143) to expand and continue unemployment insurance benefits in each state until its unemployment rate drops below 11 percent. Advocates prefer to tie continuation of benefits to economic conditions, rather than the specific date included in the HEROES Act (through the end of the calendar year). In addition, Leader Schumer and Senator Patty Murray (senior on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, D-WA) have introduced a bill to provide $25 billion in emergency spending towards production and distribution of an anti-COVID-19 vaccine.

Another issue advocates hope will be included in the coronavirus package is extension and expansion of paid leave. The House bill would provide up to 80 hours of paid time off related to the pandemic, and would extend this coverage to workers in companies with fewer than 50 or more than 500 employees, who are now excluded. On the Senate side, Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA) is pushing a proposal he co-sponsored with Senator Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) much more narrow in scope: allowing people with a new child (by birth or adoption) to voluntarily “borrow” $5,000 from later child tax credits, by reducing their $2,000 per child credit by $500 for the next ten years. Advocates do not believe this is an adequate response to the need for paid leave.

Previous packages have been negotiated primarily by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin. Some Republicans in Congress have been critical of the broad scope of the previous legislation and have been urging Trump Chief of Staff Mark Meadows to take part in the negotiations. While in Congress, Meadows was a founder of the very conservative House Freedom Caucus and has in the past opposed SNAP and other benefits programs.

Advocates have been ramping up activity over the recess to press for inclusion of urgently needed provisions such as included in the HEROES Act. The Coalition on Human Needs has, working with other groups, encouraged more than 350,000 letters or petitions to Senators seeking a relief package of adequate scope to meet the growing needs, with special attention to preventing hunger and mass evictions.

unemployment insurance