U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse and three fellow Senate Republicans demanded changes to a $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill on Wednesday before allowing a vote. Their effort failed, 48-48. It needed 60 votes to pass.
Sasse, along with Sens. Tim Scott and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Rick Scott of Florida, had objected to a proposed increase in unemployment benefits, saying they wouldn’t allow the stimulus bill to be fast-tracked without changes.
At issue, Sasse and the others said in a joint statement, is the addition of $600 a week in federal money to state unemployment benefits, regardless of the person’s previous earnings.
Their concern, Sasse told The World-Herald, was that some people could make more money on unemployment than by working at a grocery store, gas station or pharmacy, even home health aides. So, in theory, a worker might choose unemployment over a job.
That, they argued, risked leaving critical sectors of the economy with too few workers and could force employers to pay more to fill jobs during a crisis that’s already hurting many businesses’ bottom lines.
They had hoped to cap unemployment benefits at 100% of whatever a person made when last working. Graham and Sasse said you couldn't pay people more not to work than to work.
The quartet’s amendment, obtained by The World-Herald Wednesday evening, said “unemployment benefits may not exceed the amount of wages the individual was earning prior to becoming unemployed.” It added Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas as a co-sponsor. The National Federation of Independent Businesses wrote senators a letter in support of the change.
In a floor speech at 7:15 p.m. Wednesday, Sasse called the amendment “really, really simple.” He said the bill, as drafted, creates a“perverse incentive” for workers to “stay on the sidelines” and wait to seek work.
“Nobody here is arguing about whether we should help workers,” said Sasse, who voted against last week’s coronavirus relief bill. “Nobody has a problem with the generous unemployment benefits in this bill.”
Sasse had earlier told The World-Herald: “We absolutely need to help folks who need it, but we absolutely cannot gut our supply chains by increasing unemployment.”
The Nebraska Republican’s stance drew criticism from Jane Kleeb, chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party, who said businesses stand to benefit more from the stimulus package than workers.
“I think it’s disgusting that Sen. Sasse thinks that workers would rather sit at home than have the dignity of their job,” Kleeb said Wednesday.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said the Trump administration’s Department of Labor said too many states will not be able to make a determination of what people were paid and adjust their unemployment benefits to match.
“The way you want to calculate it cannot be done,” Durbin said.
At least some GOP staffers said the four objectors misread what the bill would do. They argued to The Hill that “nothing in this bill incentivizes businesses to lay off employees, in fact it’s just the opposite.”
“It’s also important to remember that nobody who voluntarily leaves an available job is eligible for UI (unemployment insurance),” the aide told The Hill.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., in a speech on the Senate floor Wednesday evening, said the country could not wait for a perfect bill.
“There is nothing in this bill that will damage us more than our inability to act,” Rubio said.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told Axios during a press conference Wednesday that most Americans want to keep their jobs and that he did not believe the additional money would create an incentive to avoid work.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., had said that if the four Republicans don’t drop their objections, he’s prepared to put a hold on the bill “until stronger conditions are imposed on the $500 billion corporate welfare fund.”