'Failure is not an option': Sen. Bennet hopeful for agreement soon on COVID-19 stimulus package

"I think there’s an understanding on the part of the leadership, including, it seems, even McConnell, that we’ve got to do something."
sen. michael bennet sen. bennet
Posted at 4:53 PM, Dec 04, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-04 20:52:39-05

DENVER – U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat, said Friday he was bullish on Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill coming to an agreement on a new stimulus package in coming weeks that he hopes will include more unemployment insurance benefits, small business stimulus, aid to local and state governments and money to bolster and funding for a surge in public health workers.

Earlier this week, a bipartisan group of senators released the framework of a $908 billion stimulus plan that at the end of this week is seen by more senators as the likeliest path forward on a stimulus package – at least in the Senate – that has been presented in the many months since the president signed the CARES Act.

“This week, I was back in D.C., and you could see the pressure build throughout the week. People talking to leadership, saying, ‘We have to act,’” Bennet said Friday in a call with Colorado reporters. “Matters are getting worse. They’re worse today than they have been throughout the crisis. And I think there’s an understanding on the part of the leadership, including, it seems, even [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell, that we’ve got to do something.”

While the exact details of the package – and exactly how such a package would be considered by lawmakers, which could include being attached to an omnibus or appropriations bill, among other options, Bennet said – are still being worked out, the framework gives some detail as to what senators are considering.

According to the Washington Post, which obtained a summary of the package, it includes $288 billion in business aid and another round of Paycheck Protection Program loans for small businesses, $180 billion in unemployment insurance aid, $160 billion for local and state governments, $82 billion for schools and education, and $16 billion for vaccine distribution, among other items.

Bennet said he had four top priorities when it comes to the Senate and House coming to an agreement on a new package: Adding new dollars to surge community testing and contact tracing efforts and help with vaccine distribution; making more money available for small businesses hardest hit by restrictions; extending enhanced unemployment benefits; and helping shore up local and state budgets – almost all of which face large projected shortfalls in the current and upcoming fiscal years.

“I’m grateful for what Gov. Polis and the state legislature did this week to provide Coloradans with emergency relief. They’re doing everything they can to help, but it’s not going to be enough without federal support. Washington needs to act.” Bennet said, something Polis and state Democratic leadership also called for at the end of the special session Wednesday.

“We have to create a bridge for our health care system, small businesses, families, state and local governments to keep their heads above water until we get to the other side of this pandemic,” the senator added. “And if we come together in a bipartisan way and do what we need to do, like we did back in March, I’m confident that we will.”

According to the Washington Post, the unemployment insurance aid package could include an extra $300 per week in benefits for people receiving some type of unemployment benefit – down from the original $600 a week originally in the CARES Act and the same as the brief extension granted earlier this fall – and an extension of Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits that have helped gig workers and self-employed people gain unemployment benefits this year, but which are set to expire at the end of the year along with some other enhanced federal benefits.

More Coloradans filed initial unemployment claims last week than have in any week since early May, a sign the latest restrictions are again leading to more layoffs as many federal unemployment benefits are set to expire by the end of the year.

The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment said Thursday that 17,130 regular initial claims and 14,242 new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claims were filed the week ending Nov. 28 – for a total of 31, 372 total initial claims between the two programs.

The week prior, there were a combined 22,588 regular and PUA initial unemployment claims. Last week’s 31,372 combined regular and PUA initial claims were the most since the week ending May 9, when 31,608 initial claims were filed.

The state paid out another $30 million last week in regular unemployment benefits and has now paid out $2.3 billion in regular unemployment since March 29.

Accommodation and food services accounted for 20% of regular unemployment initial claims for the week ending Nov. 14, for which the most recent data are available.

The uptick in unemployment claims come as more counties have or are moving to Safer at Home Level Red or Level Orange – both of which carry tighter restrictions for restaurants, bars, gyms and other businesses. In Level Red counties, indoor dining has been temporarily closed.

And though state lawmakers added in an amendment on a bill this week which passed during the special session to work to bring back several weeks of extended benefits after they expired early in Colorado due to a trigger, Bennet said that an unemployment insurance package was among the biggest priorities for most lawmakers.

“There is renewed understanding on both party’s part that this is something that we need to do,” Bennet said regarding an unemployment insurance package. “…I think there’s broad, bipartisan support for both of those things.”

Bennet said that Congress needed to have better oversight of the PUA program should it be extended, which has been rife with fraud across the county. But he called the enhanced unemployment benefits a lifeline for many Coloradans and Americans this year.

“That program has represented $4 billion of economic activity in Colorado since last March, and I shudder to think what our economy would look like today if we hadn’t done that,” he said.

And though the package from centrist senators is gaining support, Bennet and others have acknowledged it will likely only be a stopgap solution until early next year. However, the virus is expected to continue its spread and tally many more cases, hospitalizations and deaths through the holiday season and winter before vaccines are expected to become more widely available to the general populace next spring or early summer.

“I had a Republican colleague say to me in the hallway this week that any dollar that we spend right now will be twice as effective as any dollar that we spend in March. I think that’s actually not only true, but it’s probably true that any dollar that we spend now will be five times more effective today than in March,” Bennet said.

“The carnage that is going to occur to working families and to small businesses if we don’t put a floor underneath them is going to mean that we could create an economic downturn that will take us years to recover from, rather than being in this position where we can get through this next 4-6 months and then see the economy lift off, which I expect that it will.”

Bennet said that while he did not think it “would be a bad thing for us to do,” he did not see an appetite in these latest negotiations for more direct payments to Americans, like the $1,200 one-time payments many Americans received earlier this year, saying the focus was more on the enhanced unemployment insurance.

He said that he arrived in Washington last week “pretty pessimistic” about the chances of a new stimulus deal but that he believed McConnell had become convinced this week that one was necessary.

And he said that while he has some issues with the bipartisan package presented, and wishes that his Restart Act for small business and nonprofit funding would be considered and included, that he would support it, and said he believed the Senate should not go back home until a bill has been sent to President Trump’s desk.

“I certainly would support it, the package that has been negotiated. I hope that we can do better than that, but I definitely would support it,” Bennet said.

The Democratic senator praised the Biden transition team and its work so far on the pandemic in contrast with what he had seen from the Trump team this year, saying the latter was “not even attempting to have a national strategy” and that the Biden team was already working ahead toward Jan. 20, though he acknowledged that there would be “a lot that changes” between now and then.

“I think that while things are going to get worse from the perspective of the number of people that are infected and the economy slowing down as a result of that, if we can put a floor underneath the economy and make strides toward the vaccine, I think we’ll all take a look in late January and decide what needs to be done then. And … I think it’s too hard to predict today,” Bennet said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is the other factor in determining what will happen should the Senate pass the bipartisan bill. The House passed the HEROES Act months ago, which languished in the McConnell-controlled Senate, and her discussions with senators and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin have not led to packages the House, Senate and White House can agree upon so far.

But Pelosi said Friday that “there is momentum” around the ongoing discussions with the latest package.

Bennet said that next week would bring many answers on where the measure goes next. But he was clear that a failure by Congress to pass a new federal package would be devastating for Americans on top of what is already going to be a rough winter for many.

“If that happens, Washington is going to throw 12 million people into a financial crisis all across America, including 122,000 people in Colorado,” Bennet said. “All of that is to say – failure is not an option.”