Congress to debate further COVID relief

A months-long impasse in Congress over a next round of COVID relief is threatening workers, businesses, state and local governments, and the U.S. Postal Service (USPS).

Though unemployment declined to 11.1% in June, 12 million Americans who lost their jobs since March remain out of work, and the $600-a-week enhanced unemployment insurance benefit that Congress passed in March is set to expire July 31. State and local governments are reeling from current and projected revenue losses, and have laid off almost 2 million public employees. And USPS is slated to run out of funds in September, endangering the jobs of 600,000 workers.

Led by Democrats, the U.S. House passed a $3 trillion second-phase relief bill in a 208-to-199 vote on May 15. Known as the HEROES Act, it would extend the enhanced unemployment benefit to January, provide almost $1 trillion in federal aid for states and cities, send out a second round of $1,200 stimulus checks for most Americans, provide $25 billion to keep the Postal Service going through the end of 2020, and order OSHA to mandate that businesses protect workers against COVID-19.

But leaders of the 53-47 Republican majority in the U.S. Senate adopted a wait-and-see approach, in case the epidemic faded and the economy bounced back. Up to now, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) has refused to allow a vote on the HEROES Act, or to support any alternative bill. But this week, McConnell said a new round of negotiations will begin next week.

Republican leaders want a new stimulus bill to include a provision relieving businesses of legal responsibility for protecting workers and customers against the spread of the coronavirus. The forthcoming GOP bill will reportedly cost around $1.3 trillion and will include aid for businesses and hospitals, and financial incentives to encourage schools to reopen. But McConnell has said he opposes extending the enhanced unemployment benefit.

Democrats oppose the liability provision and the financial pressure on schools to reopen, and are calling for $1 trillion in state and local funding alone.

For a new stimulus to become law, Democratic and Republican leaders will have to come to some agreement.

The national AFL-CIO began running TV and social media ads in Kentucky July 14, calling on McConnell to allow a vote on the Heroes Act.

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