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Senate Republicans discuss short-term extension of boosted unemployment benefits

Congress could reduce the extra $600-a-week payment for jobless Americans, which is set to run dry if it isn't extended by the end of the week.
Image: Volunteer give food to residents economically affected by COVID 19 pandemic during San Antonio Food Bank distribution in Texas
Volunteer Cindy Trevino hands bread and pastries at a San Antonio Food Bank distribution event Friday to a resident affected by the economic fallout caused by the coronavirus pandemic.Adrees Latif / Reuters

WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans are considering a short-term extension of boosted federal unemployment benefits, just days before the payments are scheduled to expire for millions of Americans.

Senators said Wednesday that talks are in the early stages and that there's no consensus on the size or duration of any extension. Out-of-work Americans are getting $600 a week in extra benefits, which have been an economic lifeline for millions who lost their jobs because of the pandemic.

"Discussions come down to both the duration and at what price point," John Barrasso of Wyoming, the third-ranked Republican in the Senate, told reporters Wednesday.

Prospects of renewing the federal jobless benefits have appeared bleak as Republican senators are split on the future of the program. Complicating the negotiations, President Donald Trump has pushed for unpopular provisions, like reducing funding for testing and cutting the payroll tax.

But there may be hope that Republicans can find a temporary patch for the unemployment program, which has supplemented state payments for out-of-work Americans.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said he's open to a short-term extension.

"There's a lot of discussion but no decisions yet," he told NBC News.

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An extension would allow more time for broader negotiations as Republican divisions threaten the prospects of another large pandemic relief package. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has downplayed hopes of passing a bill before August.

The $600 weekly payments, which were approved in March in the CARES Act, are set to expire July 31, but for administrative reasons, states have said the last payments will go out this weekend if the program isn't extended.

Republicans widely oppose continuing the $600-a-week benefit, arguing that the size of the payments eliminates an incentive to work for many Americans who are taking home more money now than they were from their jobs. Some senators, however, have said they support a smaller additional payment.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a staunch ally of Trump's, called for cutting the payment to about $400 and extending the program through the end of the year.

"I think there needs to be the federal benefit continued, but it needs to be adjusted, because it's creating a disincentive to go back to work," Graham said.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said he wants to cap the benefit so people don't collect more in unemployment than they were making while working.

Johnson called for a "pretty short" extension, which he said could be renewed again if needed.

He also said Congress should "repurpose" existing money rather than authorize new spending. He said the situation has improved since Congress passed the CARES Act in March.

"There's no panic right now," Johnson said. "We are seeing death rates decline."

White House chief of staff Mark Meadows threw some cold water on a short-term unemployment patch, fretting that it “would just be met with another short term extension.” He instead called for a “comprehensive bill.”

“We’re optimistic that we can continue to find a real solution and hopefully, reaching a compromise,” he told NBC News on Wednesday after meeting with GOP senators.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said a stopgap bill would be better than letting the benefit lapse.

"If we can't get it all done by next week, we cannot allow there to be a cliff in the unemployment insurance, given we're still about 11 percent unemployment and about 17 million Americans out of work, some through no fault of their own," he said.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said he opposes another round of direct stimulus payments but is open to continuing benefits for those who are out of work.

"A check to people right now who are unemployed through our unemployment system — that does make sense to extend that," he said.

Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the ranking Democrat on the Finance Committee, tore into Republicans' handling of the issue and called on them to pass the Democrats' plan to extend the $600 benefit, tied to economic conditions.

"Republicans have had months to propose a plan for extending supercharged unemployment benefits, and they still have nothing to offer," he said. "Republicans have not reached out to Democrats and are simply trying to deflect blame."