Those four GOP senators argued that an increase in unemployment payments of $600 for several months should not be given to the poorest Americans because it would exceed their paychecks.
Few lawmakers agreed with that position, but perhaps no one opposed it more ferociously than Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
“And now I find that some of my Republican colleagues are very distressed, they’re very upset that somebody who’s making 10, 12 bucks an hour might end up with a paycheck for four months more than they received last week,” said Sanders, waving his arms and pointing at his colleagues as he launched into a fiery speech on the Senate floor on Wednesday night.
Sanders, a Democratic presidential hopeful, continued: “Oh my word, will the universe survive? How absurd and wrong is that? What kind of value system is that?”
He pointed out that the federal minimum wage has not been increased since 2007 and called early GOP proposals to offer low-income workers less money if they lose their job during the coronavirus pandemic a way to “punish the poor and working people.”
The senator from Vermont threatened an amendment to the relief bill that would have stripped out economic aid for corporations if Republicans did not kill the plan to throttle unemployment checks for the poorest Americans. Ultimately, the proposal to lower unemployment benefits for poor workers made by four Republicans — Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), Ben Sasse (Neb.), Rick Scott (Fla.) and Tim Scott (S.C.) — was defeated.
President Trump and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin worked to convince those senators that the universal $600 unemployment boost would be more efficient than varying supplements by income because that would require the federal government to administer funds through a patchwork of state-run unemployment programs, The Washington Post reported.
But Sanders’s passionate rebuttal, which came in the same week his campaign indicated he would stay in the Democratic race, was widely shared online even after the coronavirus relief package was unanimously approved by the Senate.
“I may not always agree with @BernieSanders but this is @BernieSanders at his very best,” tweeted former North Dakota senator Heidi Heitkamp (D). “You go, my friend!”
Many of Sanders’s supporters joined in the chorus of praise for the critique, saying that his push to defeat the amendment “just saved millions of people.”
Scott and his colleagues argued that low-wage workers would quit their jobs and stop looking for work if unemployment checks were temporarily higher than their paychecks would be. He called the increase in benefits an “incentive” to stay unemployed. Scott described it as an effort to make sure “people can’t get paid more on Unemployment than they can with a job.”
“I want to make sure we’re helping people get back in the workforce,” Scott tweeted. “Bernie wants to keep everyone dependent on the government.”
Despite those objections, the Senate killed the amendment and passed the bill Wednesday with the $600 weekly increase in unemployment benefits for laid-off workers for four months.
The package now goes to the House, where it is expected to pass in a vote on Friday. Trump has said he will sign the bill immediately after Congress approves it.