HELENA — Montana’s two U.S. senators agree that another round of federal COVID-19 relief funds should target health-care costs, businesses, the unemployed and schools.
But when it comes to the details, they part ways on how to do it – and aren’t sure when it’s going to be resolved.
“There’s a fair chance we may leave here by the end of this week and not have a package,” Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester told MTN News on Tuesday. “Or, it may be pushed to the fall.
“But I will also tell you that I think there are going to be some pretty draconian things happen to the economy if we don’t do something.”
“We’re going to have to see Congress come together to get this passed,” Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines said last Friday.
Daines, up for re-election this year, has made several proposals for what should be included in the new relief package, including loan forgiveness for businesses that borrowed less than $150,000 in an earlier bill, another round of direct payments for individuals, money for daycare, and job-training for those out of work.
Daines and Tester generally agree that the package should include more funds for COVID-19 testing and tracing, other health-care related costs of fighting the pandemic, and for schools’ reopening costs.
But a sticking point is how, and how long, to extend increased federal unemployment compensation.
An extra weekly $600 payment for the unemployed expired last week. Republicans have proposed lowering that amount to $200 through September and then to 70% of lost wages thereafter.
They also offered to extend the $600 payment weekly while the talks continued. Democrats rejected that offer, saying a long-term solution is needed.
Tester said he could probably agree to an amount less than $600, but that the payments need to continue at least through the end of the year.
“A one-week extension and another extension and another might sound good, but what we need is some predictability, for our businesses and our workers,” he said. “That’s the only way you keep things going in an orderly fashion.”
Daines said Republicans are concerned that if the extra payment is too generous, people may choose not to return to work.
“There’s incentives right now where you can make more money being unemployed than employed,” he said. “So we want to make sure we take care of those who have lost their jobs but remove any incentives that might make it easier to stay off the payroll than be on the payroll.”
Daines also said he’d like to see something that protects employers from lawsuits related to COVID-19.
“There’s a trial-lawyer pandemic brewing right now in our country,” he said. “It’s affecting businesses, it’s affecting schools, universities, and health care facilities.”
Tester said that proposal is a “solution in search of a problem,” and that he’s not heard much talk about it, as part of the bill.
Tester also said a big reason for the lack of an agreement is that Republicans themselves can’t agree on an overall proposal. Some conservatives don’t want to spend more government money when the country already is deeply in debt, he said.
Tester said he’s somewhat sympathetic to that reasoning, but that when the country’s economy is in danger of heading off a cliff, the government should be stepping in to help.
“If this economy goes down the tubes now, it may take a decade to come back, (and) we’re never going to get the debt paid off,” he said. “So, I think it’s important that … we make it as solid as we can make it moving forward.”
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