U.S. Rep. John Katko said Friday that Democrats and Republicans are to blame for the expiration of a $600 weekly benefit that was available to millions of unemployed Americans.
The additional jobless aid was included in a $2.2 trillion COVID-19 relief package approved in late March. The $600 payments, which are on top of the weekly unemployment benefits, were set to end July 31 — unless Congress acted.
The payments have provided much-needed assistance to unemployed Americans. In Katko's district, the unemployment rate in Onondaga County is 12.1% and 10.6% in Cayuga County.
In May, the House passed the Democrats' $3 trillion proposal that included an extension of the $600 payments through January 2021. Katko, R-Camillus, voted against the bill because he said it contained "poison pills," such as the release of incarcerated individuals who are age 50 or older, within a year of being released from prison or have chronic health conditions that increase their risk of serious illness if they contract COVID-19.
Katko argued that it would be unfair to the inmates who are left in prison.
Despite Katko's opposition, it was still a starting point for negotiations. However, Senate Republicans opted to wait until July to act on another COVID-19 relief. And it wasn't until this week that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell released the GOP's proposal.
Unlike the Democrats' plan, Republicans want to lower the additional jobless payments from $600 to $200 through September. After that, federal and state benefits would be used to replace 70% of lost wages through the end of the year. The federal share would be no more than $500 a week.
With the two sides far apart on an agreement, there was a short-term solution offered by the White House: A one-week extension of the existing $600 payments. Democrats rejected the proposal, according to reports, because they prefer a comprehensive relief bill.
During a videoconference with reporters, Katko expressed frustration with the process. Until this week, he said Congress has worked to provide COVID-19 relief to businesses and workers without a lot of squabbling. He blamed the upcoming election for the stalemate.
"It just seems like the campaign season is maybe starting to take root and the battle lines are being drawn and no one is going to budge a bit," he said.
Katko panned the competing proposals offered by House Democrats and Senate Republicans. He said the Democratic plan is "widely impractical," while the Senate GOP's blueprint "failed to meaningfully address and enhance unemployment insurance."
He also outlined other problems with the Senate Republicans' proposal, including no direct aid for state and local governments, the lack of housing protections, no extension of food assistance benefits and no additional resources for mental health programs.
Katko acknowledged the concerns of some employers that workers are choosing to stay home and collect the additional $600 payments because it's more than they earn at their jobs. For some businesses, that's led to a workforce shortage.
There can be a fix for that problem, Katko said. A possible solution would be to have targeted monthly payments so that low-income workers or people who are unemployed with no job to return to can receive aid.
But he also criticized the delay in addressing the expiration of the $600 weekly jobless benefits. While Democrats offered a proposal, Republicans did not.
"The problem with this place is we routinely wait until the last to get anything done," Katko said. "That's just the way it happens around here. It's like a game of brinksmanship. Kicking the can down the road is not going to help this time. It's going to hurt a lot of good Americans who through no fault of their own are really in a bad position right now.
Congressional leaders have said that negotiations will continue over the weekend and into next week. The House of Representatives was scheduled to break for August recess, but that has been canceled because there's no agreement on a COVID-19 relief bill.
Politics reporter Robert Harding can be reached at (315) 282-2220 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @robertharding.
Concerned about COVID-19?
Sign up now to get the most recent coronavirus headlines and other important local and national news sent to your email inbox daily.