The rational response for both Democrats and the White House is to stay focused on the big picture: however you look at last month, total employment is 13 million below what it was in February, the last full month before pandemic-related business shutdowns began. The economy remains too weak to recover its lost ground without another substantial injection of federal money.
Yet an impasse continues between congressional Democrats, who previously passed a $3.4 trillion package, and the White House, whose position is in flux but was at least partly defined in a $1.1 trillion bill unveiled by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) last month. In hindsight, everyone would have been better off if Mr. McConnell had engaged earlier this year. Sensing the national political tide flowing their way, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) are driving a hard bargain, refusing, for now, to compromise on a key issue: how to renew the $600-per-week unemployment insurance (UI) supplement.
President Trump, desperate for negotiating leverage, and a political comeback, announced Saturday that he was resorting to executive action to impose a scaled-back version of UI, renewing the supplement at a reduced rate. The president also said he intends to suspend the payroll tax, beginning next month, which even Republicans in Congress regard as an ineffective trickle of relief. Even if Mr. Trump can be do these things lawfully — a doubtful proposition — they are likely to create more uncertainty at a time when the economy, and the country, need the opposite. Congress should continue working toward a permanent fix on UI and other pressing needs.
Those needs are clear and far from fully addressed by Mr. Trump’s unilateral action: a renewal of unemployment benefits at an elevated rate without disincentives to work; help to state and local governments ; support for small businesses; money for safe school reopenings where possible; funding for safe and fair elections in this unique public health environment; and an enhancement to housing and nutrition programs, targeted at the poorest Americans.
Though a faction of congressional Republicans oppose such spending, based on selective concern about the federal debt, others recognize the need — if only to aid the party’s dwindling chances of holding the White House and Senate. Democratic leaders on Friday indicated a willingness to reduce their bill’s cost by $1 trillion over 10 years, if Republicans would raise theirs by the same amount. That would mean a roughly $2 trillion deal. It’s a place to start when talks get serious, which they should have long ago.