After three weeks in session, the United States Senate emptied out again on Friday, as lawmakers fled Washington for the Memorial Day recess. They left without even pretending to tackle the next round of coronavirus relief.
This is how the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, wants it. Many Republicans, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, are reluctant to embrace more government spending, so Mr. McConnell is taking a wait-and-see approach.
The Democratic-led House passed a $3 trillion relief package on May 15. That bill was imperfect but it was something. Mr. McConnell, on the other hand, has repeatedly said he’s in no hurry for the Senate to offer its own proposal. He has put talks on an indefinite pause, saying he wants to see how the economy responds to previous relief measures. The Senate may get around to putting together a plan when it reconvenes next month. Or perhaps it will in July.
This course of inaction is unsustainable. Jerome Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, warned this week that the economic damage from the pandemic could stretch through the end of next year. Over the past nine weeks, new jobless claims have hit nearly 39 million, and the official unemployment rate is expected to approach 20 percent this month. Behind these numbers are real people suffering significant hardship. The Senate’s sluggish response in addressing this suffering has begun to discomfit even some of Mr. McConnell’s fellow Republicans.
“I think June doesn’t need to come and go without a phase four,” said Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi on Wednesday, referring to the next round of aid.
Senators Cory Gardner of Colorado and Susan Collins of Maine — both facing tough re-election races — have been especially eager to assure constituents that they take their pain seriously. “Congress has a tremendous responsibility to help mitigate the impact of this crisis on our states and our local communities and on the families they serve,” Ms. Collins said in a floor speech on Wednesday. “We must not wait. We should act now.”
Republicans should keep the pressure on Mr. McConnell and prepare to intensify their push for action when the Senate reconvenes.
The relief package passed by the House is a sprawling jumble of measures. It was not intended as a serious legislative blueprint so much as a maximal opening bid in a high-stakes negotiation. It includes everything from mandating masks on Amtrak trains to establishing new protections for inspectors general to funding environmental justice research.
There is plenty to like in the plan, including $875 billion in direct aid to hard-hit state and local governments, which are seeing revenues fall even as the demand for services skyrockets. But it is neither expansive nor creative enough to meet this moment.
With unemployment predicted to stay high through 2021, lawmakers need to do more to help those Americans whose jobs have vanished, many never to return. In an earlier round of aid, Congress approved an extra $600 in weekly unemployment benefits through late July. The new House bill would extend the extra weekly benefits through January and allow workers to receive benefits beyond the usual limit of 26 weeks.
This is not enough. There is no reason to set an arbitrary finish line for federal aid. People need help for as long as the crisis lasts. The Senate needs to embrace the proposal by two Democratic senators, Michael Bennet of Colorado and Jack Reed of Rhode Island, to maintain the supplemental benefits until unemployment settles back at a more normal level. (Senator Bennet’s brother James, The Times’s editorial page editor, was not involved in this editorial.)
Congress still has an opportunity to limit further job losses. Senators should take up the proposal by Senator Josh Hawley, the Missouri Republican, that would provide employers enough money to meet 80 percent of payroll costs. The United Kingdom, France and Germany have implemented versions of this measure, focused on preserving jobs rather than waiting to deal with the fallout of job losses.
Lawmakers need to start thinking beyond the near term. One obvious way to drive economic recovery while looking to the future: a major infrastructure package.
Shoring up roads and bridges, updating lead-riddled water systems, investing in broadband and renewable energy — the United States has a nearly limitless number of projects that need to be addressed. (Parts of Central Michigan are underwater right now, and 10,000 people have been evacuated, following two catastrophic dam failures.) Interest rates are low, and workers are readily available. The government can ease the nation’s pain by spending while the private sector is convalescing.
President Trump has long expressed an openness to infrastructure investment. Some Republican lawmakers are sounding similarly inclined. “I want to do infrastructure,” Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told CNN this week, noting that he’d told the president this “really is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to give a face-lift to the country.”
Some of these proposals would be heavier political lifts than others. But it’s time for Mr. McConnell to stop his foot-dragging and get serious about making America work again.