Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Wednesday he was open to striking a narrow deal to extend federal unemployment benefits set to expire at the end of the week, as signs emerged that both parties in Congress and the White House remained far apart on a long-term fix for workers hurt by the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’re looking at all options,” McConnell told PBS NewsHour anchor and managing editor Judy Woodruff, including a “more narrow” measure if Congress can’t pass the broader, $1 trillion plan Senate Republicans floated this week.
The GOP proposal would reduce extra unemployment benefits for Americans who lost their jobs due to COVID-19. Congress included the additional $600 a week payments in a relief package passed in March, but those benefits expire at the end of the month.
Democrats have dismissed the proposal as inadequate, and McConnell acknowledged the plan doesn’t have enough support among Senate Republicans to pass.
“About 20 of my members think that we’ve already done enough,” McConnell said, adding that many Republicans were concerned about adding to the national debt.
Republicans have also argued the extra unemployment benefits were incentivizing people not to return to work, something Democrats and some economists dispute. McConnell noted the GOP plan included a onetime $1,200 stimulus check, which he said would help Americans struggling to get by during the pandemic.
McConnell’s comments came soon after White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said both parties and the White House were too far apart to strike a broad deal on unemployment before the Friday deadline.
President Donald Trump and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin also signalled Wednesday they were willing to reach a short-term agreement. Trump also said he did not want people to get evicted from their homes who have been hard hit by the public health crisis. The CARES Act that boosted federal unemployment benefits also included a moratorium on evictions, but that expired earlier this month.
In the NewsHour interview, McConnell rejected as too costly a House Democratic bill that would provide $3 trillion in additional spending on efforts against the coronavirus.
“We think that’s clearly far beyond what is necessary to get us through this next period as we continue to wrestle with the coronavirus,” McConnell said.
The Kentucky Republican also said he did not want to include any non-COVID-19 related items in the next coronavirus relief bill. The current Republican plan includes $1.8 billion to renovate the FBI headquarters across from the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C.
McConnell also touched on the issue of mask-wearing at the Capitol, which was back in the spotlight Wednesday after Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, became the latest lawmaker to test positive for COVID-19. That revelation came the day after he appeared in a committee hearing with Attorney General Bill Barr.
The Senate majority leader said there was no need for a mask mandate for Senate lawmakers, noting that most Republicans have chosen to wear one at the Capitol. “We’ve had good compliance of that on the Senate side without a mandate,” he said.