PADUCAH — Partisan battle lines are quickly forming over a newly proposed Senate Republican coronavirus relief bill, and federal unemployment benefits are a central dispute.
The GOP Senate majority wants to reduce the weekly federal payment from $600 to $200 through September when a combined federal and state benefit would target replacing 70% of previous wages. They claim it's fair to workers still on the job and argue the $600 weekly payment creates an incentive for many workers to stay home.
Democrats blasted that notion and claimed tens of millions of Americans have been thrown out of work through no fault of their own following a bungled virus response.
The relief bill and its measures are something members of the U.S. House of Representatives will soon tackle as it moves through Congress. That includes Rep. David Kustoff (R-TN, 8th District) which includes Lake, Weakley and Obion counties.
On Tuesday, Kustoff told me in a Facetime interview that the $600 is too much, and can prevent laid off employees from returning to work.
"As I talk to employers in my district, I would hear something like, 'Thank you for helping with the Paycheck Protection Program, because the money we got really was a lifeline to keep us open. But we can't hire enough of our employees to come back because some are literally making more money on unemployment than if they were coming back to their job,'" Kustoff said.
Kustoff said he's willing to negotiate on some amount of federal unemployment benefit and that $200 is a good starting point.
"There needs to be some safety net, but not so generous where employers can't get their employees to come back to work," Kustoff said.
The congressman also supports additional measures to prop up struggling small businesses, and said that will be key to any bill he supports.
"I think the Paycheck Protection Program that was passed in March was right on, because it was a lifeline for so many small businesses. We can continue to help small businesses with the paycheck protection program and would like to see some more relief in the next package and we will." Kustoff said.
Lawmakers are also discussing another round of stimulus checks — $1,200 for individuals making $75,000 or less, and prorated amount for individuals making $99,000 a year or less.
Another must have for Kustoff in the bill under debate is liability protection.
"Making sure that there's liability protection for employers as they bring their employees back to work, for the schools, the K through 12, the two-year schools, the technical schools, the colleges and the universities as students come back — and also for medical providers and first responders. My point is employers, schools, doctors, they don't need to be worried about a lawsuit coming along the corner unless they somehow are grossly negligent or there's some intentional malfeasance there. But not to worry about a class action lawsuit or other lawsuits," Kustoff said.
The bill in its current form also includes more than $100 billion for COVID-19 testing and contact tracing. Kustoff said he supports that, so long as it's testing that yields results in a timely manner.
"I'd like to make sure not only that there's adequate testing ,but there's the right type of testing," Kustoff added.
It's unlikely any new legislation will be signed into law soon. It could take several weeks.