U.S. Republicans unveil coronavirus plan, slash job benefit by $400 a week

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Senate Republicans on Monday proposed a $1 trillion coronavirus aid package hammered out with the White House, paving the way for talks with Democrats on how to help Americans as expanded unemployment benefits for millions of workers expire this week.

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell called the proposal a “tailored and targeted” plan focused on getting children back to school and employees back to work and protecting corporations from lawsuits, while slashing the expiring supplemental unemployment benefits of $600 a week by two-thirds.

The plan sparked immediate opposition from both Democrats and Republicans. Democrats decried it as too limited compared to their $3 trillion proposal that passed the House of Representatives in May, and some Republicans called it too expensive.

McConnell said the package would include direct payments to Americans of $1,200 each, as well as incentives for manufacturing personal protective equipment for healthcare workers in the United States, rather than China.

It also includes $190 billion for loans to help small businesses, and $100 billion for loans to businesses that operate seasonally or in low-income areas.

Republicans want to reduce the expanded unemployment benefit from the current $600 per week, which expires on Friday, to $200, paid in addition to state unemployment benefits, and to extend the program for two months. After that, the benefit would switch to 70% of a worker’s previous wages, to a maximum of $500 a week including state unemployment benefits.

The supplemental benefit has been a financial lifeline for laid-off workers and a key support for consumer spending. The extra unemployment funds – exceeding the former wages of some workers – have been a sticking point for many Republicans, who say they encourage Americans to stay home rather than go back to work.

Democrats, in turn, have decried the Republican delay in writing more legislation as U.S. coronavirus cases passed the 4 million mark, a milestone for a pandemic that has killed roughly 150,000 people in the United States and thrown tens of millions out of work.

The Democratic-led House in May passed its $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill known as the “HEROES Act,” but the Republican-led Senate refused to consider it.

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McConnell on Monday called the House bill a “socialist manifesto” and urged Democrats to work with Republicans on their plan, called the “HEALS Act.”

“We have one foot in the pandemic and one foot in the recovery,” McConnell said. “The American people need more help. They need it to be comprehensive, and they need it to be carefully tailored to this crossroads.”

The proposal will include “strong legal liability protection” for corporations, a top priority of Republicans.

It includes nearly $30 billion for the military and defense industry, in addition to nearly $760 billion already enacted for defense this year – including more than $10 billion in previous coronavirus relief bills.

The immediate opposition from some of McConnell’s fellow Republicans, as well as from Democrats, signaled a tough round of negotiations ahead.

“The answer to these challenges will not simply be shoveling cash out of Washington. The answer to these challenges will be getting people back to work,” Republican Senator Ted Cruz told reporters.

Some Republicans had complained about the high price tag; the federal government has already spent $3.7 trillion to cushion the economic blow from pandemic-forced shutdowns.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said the Republican plan did too little, too slowly, to help Americans facing eviction because the pandemic has made it impossible for them to go to work.

“The Republican plan is weak tea, when our problems need a much stronger brew,” Schumer said.

He said many states had warned they would have a hard time implementing unemployment changes. Many Americans waited weeks for previous coronavirus benefits, as outmoded state computer systems adjusted.

Democrats had warned they would oppose a Republican proposal to protect businesses and schools from liability lawsuits as they reopen with the coronavirus pandemic still raging.

The Republican proposal also includes measures not directly related to the COVID-19 outbreak, including $1.8 billion for construction of a new FBI headquarters in Washington, something championed by President Donald Trump, who owns a hotel across the street from the current building.

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