President Donald Trump’s presidential campaign released a new TV ad this week claiming credit for coronavirus relief efforts, including boosted unemployment insurance, that his fellow Republicans are now trying to undercut.
“It takes a Donald Trump to demand truth from China, shut down foreign travel, get ventilators and tests, raise unemployment benefits and cash benefits to families,” the narrator says in the ad.
The U.S. has had a disjointed response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 100,000 Americans as of this week. The nation lagged in testing for the virus between January and March, missing a crucial window to contain its spread, and still doesn’t have a nation-wide testing and tracing strategy as states and cities begin to loosen stay-at-home orders.
Meanwhile, as the pandemic continues to take an economic toll in the country, with more than 40 million Americans newly unemployed, Republican lawmakers are reluctant to expand emergency relief benefits.
Trump’s poll numbers have suffered amid the pandemic. In Fox News surveys, Trump’s approval rating on his handling of the crisis fell by eight percentage points between April and May among registered voters. An Economist/YouGov poll in May found that 52% of voting-aged Americans were uneasy with Trump’s handling of the pandemic.
Trump himself suggested last week that he would be open to letting the expanded federal unemployment benefits expire — even as his new ad touts the aid.
In March, Congress passed a $600 weekly increase in federally funded unemployment benefits, which Americans would receive on top of their state payments — a deal negotiated between Senate Democrats and the Trump administration. The expanded benefits are set to run out in July and so far GOP congressional leaders have shown no interest in extending them. Instead, they have expressed concerns that some low-wage workers are making more through the benefits than they did in their previous jobs, making the aid a disincentive to find new work.
Democrats were quick to scoff at the new ad.
“Donald Trump is the new chairman of the chutzpah caucus, attempting to take credit for supercharged unemployment in his whopper of a campaign ad,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), one of the lead negotiators behind the unemployment benefit, said in a statement. “To be clear, Donald Trump had nothing to do with boosting unemployment benefits. Supercharging unemployment benefits was a top priority of Senate Democrats, and Donald Trump’s administration fought against it. Going forward, Donald Trump’s plan is to cut off the boost in unemployment benefits he’s falsely claiming as his own and shower his wealthy buddies with more tax cuts.”
Senate Democrats initially wanted states to match the wages newly unemployed workers had lost. But Trump Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia argued state agencies, which have been overwhelmed with unemployment claims, wouldn’t be able to do the administrative work to match an individual’s wages.
Instead, Senate Democrats, the administration and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) struck a deal: for four months, the federal government would fund an additional $600 a week to make up the gap between the average state unemployment benefit of $360 and the average weekly wage of about $980. The agreement on unemployment benefits was seen as a Democratic win in exchange for tax cuts and benefits for big businesses.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a close Trump ally who argues the benefit disincentivizes work, asked the president to oppose any continued expansion of unemployment insurance last week. Some Republican senators have been putting forward ideas to replace the federal unemployment insurance with “return to work” bonuses, or cash rewards for gaining employment, The Washington Post reported. Those proposals come as public health officials continue to warn against sending Americans back to work, and economists have cautioned against rosy expectations for a rebound of labor markets.
“It’s telling how unpopular Donald Trump’s economic agenda is that he’s touting unemployment benefits and not the tax breaks for multinational corporations and wealthy real estate investors that were Republican priorities,” Wyden said.
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