On Senate Floor, Portman Calls for Bipartisan Action to Provide COVID-19 Unemployment Insurance Relief

September 16, 2020 | Press Releases

WASHINGTON, DC – This evening on the Senate floor, U.S. Senator Rob Portman stressed the need for Senate Democrats to work with Republicans and negotiate in good faith on a bipartisan COVID-19 relief package including a reasonable extension of the enhanced federal unemployment insurance (UI) supplement to help Americans who lost their jobs during the pandemic through no fault of their own make ends meet.  

After the previous $600 per week enhanced federal supplement created under the bipartisan CARES Act expired on August 1, Senator Portman was a leader in proposing a temporary extension of the program while a long-term UI solution was negotiated. However, Senate Democrats voted to block this measure multiple times, as well as targeted legislation introduced last week that would have also provided a $300 per week in enhanced federal unemployment benefits through December 27, 2020. In response to Congress’ inaction, the Trump Administration created a temporary Lost Wages Assistance program using existing FEMA funds to allow states to continue to distribute enhanced unemployment benefits, but all of this funding has been appropriated and unemployed Americans are once again facing an abrupt end in benefits. 

Senator Portman urged his Senate Democratic colleagues to put aside politics and negotiate a package that helps people weather the challenges of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic without creating a disincentive to work as the economy continues to recover. 

A transcript of his remarks can be found below and a video can be found here.

“I’m here on the floor this evening to talk about what Congress needs to do right now to help the American people with regard to this coronavirus pandemic. We’re not out of the woods yet. People are still struggling with the economy being weak, and we still have a real health care crisis to deal with. Since this crisis began, Congress has come together as Republicans and Democrats both here in the Senate and over in the House, working with the White House, to pass five coronavirus bills, five. Legislation addressed both the health care crisis and the economic freefall that was caused by the virus and also by the government-imposed shutdowns. The biggest of these bills was the one you hear most about. That’s the roughly $2 trillion in the CARES Act that was passed by a vote in this chamber of 96-0. Totally bipartisan.

“Unfortunately, since May, when the last of these bipartisan bills was enacted, partisanship has prevailed over policy and Washington has been paralyzed, unable to repeat the coming together for the public good. Democrats in this chamber have consistently insisted that the only way forward is a bill called the HEROES Act. This is a $3.5 trillion piece of legislation that passed the House of Representatives four months ago along partisan lines. By the way, $3.5 trillion, it would be the most expensive legislation ever to be enacted. When this bill passed the House four months ago, ‘Politico’ and others in the media accurately called it a messaging bill that had no chance of becoming law. It’s disappointing the Democrats have continued to push this ‘my way or the highway’ approach because this bill is a nonstarter for a lot of reasons, including the price tag and the fact that it includes non-COVID-related provisions. Just to name one example, it repeals the state and local tax deduction cap. That’s a $135 billion tax code change where most of the benefit is going to go to the top one percent of wage earners. What does it have to do with COVID-19? Now is not the time to give tax breaks to the wealthy, to make changes to our immigration policy, or impose unprecedented mandates on state election procedures that are normally in the province of the states, not us, all of which are part of the HEROES Act. Instead, this should be a time where we focus on what the American people need right now and help them to handle this health care and economic challenge they’re facing. But that hasn’t happened.

“Last week, I spoke on this floor about all the things in the targeted bill that was voted on last Thursday in this chamber where there is bipartisanship, where Democrats and Republicans actually agree. I talked about the need to extend the PPP program, Paycheck Protection Plan, which is helping small businesses keep their doors open, but it expired on August 8th. And a lot of small businesses are saying to me back home in Ohio, ‘I’m barely holding on. When is this coming? I need an extension of this program.’ And yet, we can’t seem to get our act together here, even though it’s totally nonpartisan, as far as I can tell. The bill we voted on last Thursday also has more funding for something desperately needed in my state of Ohio and other states around the country, which is more money for testing. It also has more money, by the way, for developing a vaccine more quickly and effectively, for getting these antiviral therapies up and going. I mean, all this is stuff we should be able to agree on, right? No. We haven’t been able to.

“Another thing that was in that bill last Thursday was providing funding for the schools so they can reopen, K-12 but also for our colleges and universities. These schools are starting to reopen, and they need the help badly. Actually, it had enough funding in there that it was slightly more than the funding that was in the HEROES Act, the Democrat proposal, for the same purpose. $105 billion. So why couldn’t we get together? What else did it have? Well, it had something very important for a lot of people who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own. It had an extension of the current federal supplement for unemployment insurance in the states. It had a $300 per week, $300 per week federal taxpayer-paid additional supplement on top of the roughly $350 that states already provide, on average, for unemployment. And yet, that was all rejected. We couldn’t even have a good vote to proceed on the bill to have a debate on the bill so we could have an honest debate and say oh, gee, $300 is too much or it’s not enough, or maybe the PPP program should be slightly changed this way or that way. Or maybe there is less money for schools needed, or more money for schools. We couldn’t even get on the bill because you need 60 votes to do that, and we only had 52. Which is a majority of this chamber. But it’s not the 60-vote supermajority. 52 Republicans supported it. Unfortunately no Democrats were able to support it. I don’t get that because all we were saying was ‘let’s get on this bill and have a debate, and if later on in the process you don’t like where we’ve ended up, there is another 60-vote margin. You can filibuster it again.’ But we couldn’t even get on the bill to have a debate.

“To me, that is really sad, because the American people weren’t given the opportunity to get some help, but also they weren’t given the opportunity to see what the differences are and have this out in the open. That legislation is one that, again, 52 Republicans supported, we’re ready to go. Let’s have the discussion. Let’s have the debate. The federal funds to help the unemployed get by was a particular concern of mine, and I want to focus on that tonight. That unemployment benefit is a classic example of where Senate Democrats have blocked what I think is a reasonable compromise, and I’ll explain why I think that, and instead have decided to provide nothing. Nothing. What we should do instead is we should embrace a compromise together for these families that continue to struggle to make ends meet because some people can’t go back to work still, because their movie theater, their bowling alley or their motor coach company can’t hire them. Either they are shut down or they simply can’t hire them back, so there are people who are unemployed who still need our help.

“Early on in this pandemic, both Republicans and Democrats recognized this. We recognized the need to bolster the state-run unemployment insurance programs to help offset the massive job loss we saw in March and April. That’s why the CARES Act we talked about earlier, this bipartisan bill, contained an unprecedented $600 per week additional federal supplement on top of the state supplement for four months. By the way, the state benefit in Ohio on average is $360. So the $600 was on top of the $360, coming up to $960 per week. We did that for a period of four months. That provided an important income source for a lot of people, made a huge difference in the lives of a lot of people who, again, early on couldn’t work because the government was actually closing down businesses, saying ‘you can’t open.’ Some say that was too much, and we’ll talk about why they say that, but it was a big help, and it was appropriate in a sense for the time to do something that big because the government itself was saying ‘you’re going to lose your job through no fault of your own. We the government is saying you have to shut down, so we’re going to provide you an unemployment benefit.’ It was also used for other things. To pay rent, to pay that car payment. You know, just to get by.

“As the year has gone on, we have made progress now on slowing the spread of the coronavirus, adding testing, adding more personal protective gear, and so on, and many parts of our economy have been able to reopen in a safe and sustainable manner, and that’s good. Without that help that we provided again in the legislation, the five bills we passed, we wouldn’t be so far along. They helped. They helped keep the doors open in a lot of small businesses. They helped provide the money for our health care system, for testing. With that reopening around the country, hiring picked back up, and now we have far fewer people on unemployment than we did at the beginning of this pandemic, so less people who need unemployment insurance. Unemployment is about 8.4 percent. That’s what it was last month. That’s down from over 15 percent in the spring. Now, 8.4 percent is still too high, particularly compared to the record lows we saw just before this pandemic. It’s more than twice what it was then, but it’s undoubtedly a step in the right direction, and unemployment claims are either holding steady or dropping now in most states, so that’s good.

“With this positive progress we are seeing, I think it was fair for Congress to want to take another look at the original unemployment insurance supplement which expired at the end of July, and see whether there was a new supplement that we could continue to help those in need while better reflecting this improved economy and the need for workers, rather than a situation where, again, the government was actually imposing shutdowns of much of our economy. But that’s where things broke down. So at the end of July, the $600 supplement ended. Everybody knew it was going to end then. But Republicans and Democrats couldn’t agree on how to best structure an additional UI supplement. By the way, having differences isn’t unusual around here. We have debates all the time. That debate was a big part of the negotiations in July and August. What was disappointing to me, to many of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle and to so many people we represent is that instead of taking us up on our offer that we offered to extend the $600 for a week to be able to negotiate something or two weeks, which would have put a lot of pressure on the negotiation, think about it, Democrats said no. I don’t know why they said no, but Democrats would not even allow us to extend the $600 to put pressure on negotiations. Deliberately, they allowed these benefits to expire. So it went from a $600 benefit on top of the state benefit to zero federal benefit. Let me repeat that. Rather than work to agree on a week-long extension of a lifeline for so many people to buy time to work something out, Democrats instead chose to let these benefits expire and allow millions of Americans to go without benefits.

“When we hit this impasse on the UI issue that Congress just couldn’t break, the Trump Administration stepped in. President Trump quickly signed an Executive Order on August 8th, so a week after the benefit expired, which authorized FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to begin distributing an emergency Lost Wage Assistance unemployment check. So the government stepped in at the Executive Branch side and said ‘okay, you guys in Congress can’t figure this out. The $600 has gone to zero, so you just have the state benefit now and you have a lot of people still unemployed through no fault of their own, tough to get by on $360 a week.’ So President Trump and his administration stepped in and said ‘we’ll provide it temporarily’, temporarily, because that’s all the money they had through what’s called this Wage Assistance Program. Under this program, $44 billion from the Disaster Relief Fund was made available to states to use as a supplement to their unemployment insurance programs. Still leaving $25 billion, by the way, in that fund for natural disasters.

“I spoke to Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia on Friday, and I asked him ‘is there any money left in that fund?’ Because remember this was done on August 8th, and they had a limited amount of money. He said ‘no, Rob, actually it was a temporary program, meant to be a bridge so Congress could get its act together between August 8th and now,’ so basically a month and a week. Surely Congress would do something here, but we haven’t, so now that money has run out. So now people who were getting the $600 benefit down to zero, then back up to $300, which most were getting in a lump sum because it takes a while to process this money, that $300 is now ending. No more $300 per week federal supplement. By the way, almost every state and territory except for two has applied for and received some of this funding from the feds. 

“Ohio was able to receive enough funding to cover six weeks of lost benefits, so basically, again, from August 1st until now. Ohio got $1.4 billion from the fund, and it’s sending out its unemployment insurance benefits this week. Next week, it ends because they have run out of money. They have used the federal money. So the $300 supplement has now ended. It’s surely time for us to act. And it would be timely this week and next week to now do something to provide for a supplement for people, again, who have lost their job through no fault of their own. We could have solved this last Thursday with the targeted relief bill that came to the floor for a vote that I talked about. The timing was perfect. We could have done that because part of the negotiation that we had between ourselves as Republicans over this and with some Democrats, I suppose, was, you know, what’s the right level? And what we came up with was $300. That was part of the bill that, again, got 52 votes last Thursday but needed the 60 votes and Democrats blocked it. So even though it got the majority of the Senate, it didn’t get the supermajority of 60 that you needed. And again, we couldn’t even get on the legislation to talk about it.

“But that $600 supplement in this bill was changed to $300, which was consistent with where the Administration has been over the last five or six weeks. And that helps the vast majority of unemployed individuals make ends meet without driving our deficit even higher. The $600 per week supplement was not sustainable over time in part because most people were actually making more money on unemployment insurance than they were with their jobs. So you were being paid more not to work than to work at $600, on top of the state benefit. In fact, under that supplement of $600, the median wage earner in America received 134 percent of his or her previous wages, more than they were making, while making it harder therefore to jump back into the workplace and get our economy moving again. By the way, I have heard this all over Ohio, and I know every single one of my colleagues has. They have heard it from businesses, particularly small businesses, but also larger businesses. Say the Ford Motor Company -- they told me they had a 25 percent absenteeism rate when I visited them over the August break. Why? Because people weren’t coming back to work because of the benefit that they had been getting of $600. So it’s small businesses, yes, but it’s also mid-sized and larger businesses. It’s also a lot of nonprofits.

“I have heard this from hospitals. I have heard it from people that provide addiction services, recovery services, treatment programs. Nonprofits are having a hard time getting people to come back because again the $600 on top of the state benefit, average let’s say $350, $950 a week was more than they were able to pay them. So people were making more on unemployment insurance than they were at work and this was as the economy was starting to pick up, we needed jobs. So how about $300. Why did we pick $300? Well, again, $600 is so generous that it’s paying people more. By the way, the Congressional Budget Office, a nonpartisan group here in the Congress analyzes these things. They analyzed it. They said if you continued the $600 until next year, which is what the Democrat proposal is, that’s their legislation called the HEROES Act, $600 until next year, that would result in eight out of ten people on unemployment insurance getting paid more on unemployment insurance than they would at work. 80 percent. That’s from the CBO.

“So what is the right number? Instead of having 80 percent paid more by not working? Well, about $300 I think is about the right number. Some could say that’s too high, too. But the $300 on top of the state benefit was what was rejected last Thursday by my colleagues on the other side of the aisle. By the way, when 80 percent of people are making more money by not working, it hurts everybody. It hurts the businesses, these small businesses, it hurts these nonprofits unable to get people to come to work. Look at the help wanted signs you may see in your own community. It also hurts the economy when you don’t have this workforce and don’t have these jobs coming back. It also hurts the workers. And I think all of us should want to reconnect people to work. Right? That’s where people get their health care. If they have it, they’re likely to get it at work. That’s where about 80 percent of us do get it. It’s where people get their retirement, if they have it. And we want more and more people to have that, but a 401(k) is going to be through work. It’s where people get the training they need to keep up with what’s happening in their job. It’s where people connect to other people. It’s where people get self-respect and self-esteem by working. So we should be encouraging work. I think, again, there is a number there somewhere where you’re helping people who need the funds to be able to get by because they are unemployed through no fault of their own and yet you’re not offering such a high benefit that it’s more advantageous not to work.

“The $300 per week amount that was offered, again, last Thursday is generous compared to other unemployment insurance. Again, in Ohio you go from $360 in the state benefit to, with the supplement, $660 per week. So that’s a big change, makes a big difference in people’s lives. It would cover 90 percent of the lost wages for the median worker nationwide. So $300 per week covers 90 percent of the lost wages, helping particularly low and middle-income wage earners get by without, again, creating this $600 disincentive to work. Even if $300 wasn’t the perfect solution, it was certainly a starting point. It was a policy point that could have been debated and amended on the floor, had we gone to the legislation. But again it was blocked to even go to the bill to talk about it. Democrats blocked us from debating it and so people got nothing. Not the $300 which for, again, 90 percent of lost wages for the median wage worker would have been replaced by that. But zero. So all people are left with is this state benefit now.

“Again, unfortunately in this place, politics was put ahead of the interests of struggling families that need extra help. It’s stunning to me that this is the point we’ve reached in Congress’ work to address this coronavirus pandemic. Early on, there were so many bipartisan victories we achieved because Republicans and Democrats alike said, ‘this is a crisis, we’ve got to address this not as our party might want us to but as Americans,’ recognizing the severity of the challenge we were facing. It was encouraging to see us come together to craft the CARES Act, which passed, again, 96-0, and made a big difference. I had hoped we would be able to recognize from that victory the importance of hashing out our disagreements and coming up with a solution, finding common ground to be able to help those who we represent.

“Unfortunately, the opposite has happened. Politics seem to have taken over. And look, you know, on the other side of the aisle and the Speaker of the House and others may think this is good politics for them not to move forward with something. Maybe they’re right. Maybe it is good politics somehow. But it’s not what’s best for the American people. By opposing a reasonable compromise on unemployment insurance, as an example, what this Congress is doing is leaving the American people high and dry, at the exact time that funding for these benefits has run out. So again the short-term bridge that the administration provided -- $300 per week -- is running out. That doesn’t need to happen. Let’s come to the negotiating table this week and next week -- we’re going to be here next week. We’re supposed to vote on a Continuing Resolution, you know the funding program. So we’ll be here.

“We know what the differences are. We know what the similarities are. We know how to put together a package. We know roughly what it has to be, what the compromise is. For Republicans and Democrats alike, it’s now on us to come up with that bipartisan solution -- on unemployment insurance and the other pressing issues that we face as the American people.”