Senate Democrats to lower jobless benefits to $300 a week in compromise to extend coverage

WASHINGTON — On the verge of passing a $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief bill, Senate Democrats agreed to lower the measure’s federal unemployment benefits to $300 a week and extend the coverage to September, according to two Democratic sources.

That’s a reduction from the House-passed version, which included $400-per-week jobless benefits through August, and it comes as the Senate begins a long series of votes Friday to finalize the package.

The new figure is the result of an agreement between progressive and moderate Democrats, one Democratic aide said.

Moderates wanted the weekly benefit to be cut to $300 per week. Many Democrats wanted the month-long jobless bonus to avoid a “cliff” as it expires at the end of August, when Congress is typically out of session and may be unwilling to come back to fix it.

The last-minute change will be offered as an amendment by Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del.

"Having an unnecessary cliff for unemployed workers is not good policy," Carper said in a statement. "We’ve found a way to avoid that and ensure that the millions of Americans who are still struggling to find work will see an immediate benefit before Tax Day this year."

The amendment process got off to a rough start Friday with Democrats holding the first vote open for hours as they worked to keep all 50 of their senators on the same page to defeat Republican amendments, including on jobless benefits. Due to likely unanimous GOP opposition, they can’t afford any defections if they are to pass the bill in a narrowly divided chamber.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., predicted the relief bill would pass.

“We're not going to make the same mistake we made after the last economic downtown, when Congress did too little to help the nation rebound, locking us into a long, slow, painful recovery,” he said Friday morning on the Senate floor. “We are not going to be timid in the face of big challenges.”

In addition, the jobless benefit deal between Democrats allows the first $10,200 of the jobless benefits to be non-taxable, which Democrats say will prevent surprise tax bills for the jobless. It also extends tax rules on excess business loss limitations for one additional year, through 2026.

Earlier, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., criticized Democrats for pursuing a relief package without Republican votes after the chamber moved 51-50 to begin debate Thursday.

He insisted that Democrats shouldn’t get credit for the economic recovery.

“We are already on track to bounce back from this crisis. That's not because of this bill. It's because of our work last year,” McConnell said. “We're going to come roaring back and mostly not because of this bill. In fact, in some ways in spite of this bill.”

The Senate looked set to reject a motion by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to re-add a minimum wage hike to $15-an-hour in the Covid bill. The vote required 60 senators to waive the budget rules, and was poised to fail 42-58, as Democrats held it open in preparation for their next steps.

Eight Democrats cast votes against it, joining all Republicans: Carper, Chris Coons of Delaware, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, Angus King of Maine (an independent who caucuses with Democrats), Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Jon Tester of Montana.

Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., speculated that Democrats feared some of their members might back Republican amendments. Such a move could endanger final passage of the bill.

"I just think that the Democrats right now are in a bit of a quandary," Thune told reporters. "They've essentially stopped action on the floor so that they can try and persuade, I think, all their members to stay together on some of these votes."

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