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U.S. Sen. Susan Collins blamed Democrats on Friday for not accepting a last-minute one-week extension of $600 in weekly unemployment insurance benefits after the Senate left for the weekend before reaching a deal on a coronavirus aid package.
The fourth-term Republican in one the nation’s toughest re-election fights in 2020 spoke about the potential for another virus aid package on Friday after touring W.S. Emerson, a Brewer apparel company that has been making face masks under aid in an earlier virus stimulus bill.
Tens of thousands of Mainers will see a significant income drop next week after Congress failed to reach an agreement to extend the $600 in unemployment benefits that the federal government has been paying since the beginning of April.
The Maine senator said she was disappointed the Senate had not made more progress, but noted that negotiations were ongoing. Along with two other Republican senators, Collins introduced a bill on Thursday which would have extended benefits at $500 per week, with different amounts in the future, but the bill was not immediately acted on.
Collins chiefly blamed Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, for the impasse, saying Senate Republicans were in agreement but Democrats blocked the temporary extension because they wanted an “all or nothing” package.
A $2.2 trillion stimulus bill, which passed unanimously in March, included a provision giving an additional $600 in unemployment benefits to every worker receiving state unemployment, but the program was set to expire at the end of July. The Democratic-led House passed a full extension of the benefits in May.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, introduced a bill which included an initial extension of benefits at $200 per week, but the proposal received criticism from many sides and did not come up for a vote. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, who caucuses with Democrats, said this week that bill showed a “failure to understand the urgency Americans are feeling.”
The White House indicated Thursday that President Donald Trump would support extending the weekly $600 and proposed a one-week extension. Democratic leaders rejected that, saying a more sweeping extension was necessary, the Associated Press reported.
Unemployment experts say that, even if Congress were to pass a one-week extension, it is not clear that workers in most states would get the benefits next week because states would need to reprogram their computers to restart the flow of money, CNBC reported earlier this month.
Maine’s unemployment system has been plagued by delays since the pandemic started. The state’s labor department said earlier this week that, while extending benefits at one level would be relatively simple, significant changes to the administration of unemployment benefits, such as switching to a sliding scale, would likely take months to implement.
Collins said Friday the amount of unemployment benefits remains a “source of contention” that Congress will have to work out. She also said there remained disagreement over providing additional aid to state and local governments.
Aid for states and municipalities was included in the House Democrats’ bill. Collins also co-sponsored legislation in the Senate that would provide aid, but that bill, introduced in May, has yet to make it to a vote on the Senate floor. Collins said she had heard from local officials across the state that they would likely face layoffs if they did not receive aid.
“We’re in the midst of a persistent pandemic, and we need to come together and solve problems,” Collins said.