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$600 unemployment benefits boost update: McConnell open to extension

As White House and Democrat leaders negotiate a coronavirus relief package, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says he's ready to support whatever they agree on.

FILE PHOTO: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) speaks to news reporters following a series of meetings on efforts to pass new coronavirus aid legislation on Capitol Hill in Washington in Washington, U.S., July 28, 2020. REUTERS/Tom Brenner/File

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell indicated on Tuesday that he would accept the inclusion of a $600 unemployment benefits boost in the next coronavirus stimulus bill, saying he is ready to get behind whatever U.S. President Donald Trump and his White House negotiators agree with congressional Democrat leaders.

"Wherever this thing settles between the president of the United States and his team, who has to sign it into law, and the Democrat, not insignificant minority in the Senate and majority in the House, is something I'm prepared to support," McConnell said when asked about Democrats’ insistence on the $600 figure being a part of the relief package. "Even if I have some problems with certain parts of it."

Trump not keen on including $600 boost in next package

However, Trump does not support the inclusion of the $600 supplement and it is “unclear if his position will change”, Business Insider reports.

$600 boost included in CARES Act, but expired in July

The CARES Act, a $2.2tn relief package passed in March, gave out-of-work Americans an extra $600 a week on top of their basic unemployment pay, but this measure expired at the end of July. The Democrat-held House approved a six-month extension of the scheme as part of the $3tn HEROES Act in May, but the bill has not been taken up by the Republican-controlled Senate.

McConnell has previously referred to the $600 boost as a "mistake" and spoken of a commitment to “fixing the obvious craziness of paying people more to remain out of the workforce”, amid GOP concern that some claimants have been deterred from seeking new jobs by receiving more in benefits than they would usually earn.

Indeed, Republican senators made plain their determination to reduce expanded benefits when they unveiled their proposal for the next stimulus package, the HEALS Act, which suggested slashing $600 to $200 until 5 October, then removing this flat rate in favor of a 70% wage-replacement scheme until 31 December.

Many Republicans won't back bill including $600 benefits boost

And although McConnell now appears to have softened his stance on additional unemployment benefits, he noted on Tuesday - per Business Insider - that many Republicans would be unlikely to back a bill again featuring the $600 figure.

Since the HEALS Act was unveiled on 27 July, negotiations have been ongoing between Democrat and White House chiefs in a bid to agree a bill that can pass both the House and the Senate before the upper chamber goes on a scheduled month-long recess on Friday.

Relief bill talks between White House chiefs, Democrat leaders dragging

The talks have not gone smoothly, however, and Democrats warn they are unlikely to be completed by the end of the week, per Politico. The renewal of expanded benefits has been a particular sticking point, with Democratic negotiators Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer unwilling to go lower than $600 a week and rejecting attempts to agree “piecemeal” short-term extensions to the initiative.

"We’re not accepting that," Pelosi said last week, explaining that Democrats are holding out for a "comprehensive" package of stimulus measures.

Related: Second stimulus check: is a deal possible if not settled by Friday?

Pelosi open to lower figure if unemployment drops

Speaking to CNN on Monday, Pelosi reiterated Democrats' resolve to get the $600 supplement into the next relief bill, saying: "A building is on fire and they [Republicans] are deciding how much water they want to have in the bucket […]. Millions of people could have fallen into poverty without this $600.”

However, the House speaker said she was ready to negotiate an amount that would later decrease if more people in the country got back into jobs. "I think that the number, the $600, is related more to the unemployment rate,” she said. "If the unemployment goes down, then that number can go down."

Unemployment in the U.S. has soared since the coronavirus hit, rising to 14.7% in April. Though it has since dropped, June’s 11.1% jobless rate remained nearly 8% higher than its pre-pandemic level of 3.5%.

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