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Bernie Sanders threatens to hold up coronavirus bill after 4 GOP senators push to cut unemployment aid

Chances for a planned Senate vote on a historic $2 trillion relief package in response to the coronavirus pandemic appeared to dwindle Wednesday as senators threatened to delay it over a key unemployment insurance proposal.

Earlier in the day, four Republican senators — Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott of South Carolina, Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Rick Scott of Florida — threatened not to support the chamber’s push to pass the rescue package through fast-track procedures. They argued a proposal to add $600 per week to unemployment insurance for up to four months, a core provision of the near-final legislation, could encourage companies to lay off workers and Americans to stay unemployed, urging a vote to cap the aid. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., then said he would delay the bill if his GOP colleagues did not drop their opposition, calling it an “outrage” to prevent Americans from getting emergency unemployment insurance. In a statement, he said he is “prepared to put a hold on this bill” to lobby for tighter restrictions on companies receiving aid from a taxpayer pool of $500 billion. 

The prospect of an impasse in the Senate appeared to hit U.S. stock indexes at the end of Wednesday’s session. Investors hoped Congress could quickly approve the legislation, which gives direct payments to Americans, loans to businesses large and small and resources to states and hospitals to fight the outbreak.

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders speaks during a news conference in Burlington, Vermont, U.S. March 11, 2020.

Lucas Jackson | Reuters

Lawmakers moved swiftly to put together the stimulus plan, which the Senate hopes to pass by Wednesday night after several false starts during frenzied negotiations in recent days. After Democrats blocked an earlier version of the legislation twice to try to secure concessions, Republicans accused them of delaying aid desperately needed to boost a reeling economy and health care system.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said Wednesday he would give representatives 24 hours’ notice before a vote on the relief package. By about 4:15 p.m. ET, the Senate had not released the final version of its legislation. 

The emergency unemployment insurance provision, a compromise reached between Republicans and Democrats, aims to help workers hit by widespread layoffs as regular businesses in the U.S. ground to a halt to slow the pandemic’s spread. Earlier Wednesday, the four Republican senators called for an amendment to reduce the proposed benefit to 100% of a worker’s previous pay.

They said some workers would get more money from the insurance than they did from their jobs.

“Let’s just make sure we make people whole. Let’s not increase their salary because you can’t afford to do that,” he told reporters. 

In response to the lawmakers’ concerns, a senior GOP aide said “we’ll have to do something” to secure their support. 

A spokesperson for the Senate Finance Committee, the panel that drafted the unemployment insurance provision, did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request to comment on what changes the Senate could potentially make.

Sanders’ counter threat to hold up the legislation revolves around perhaps the biggest concern for Democrats that emerged from an earlier version of the bill. They worried Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin would have too much discretion over how the government doled out the money and how companies would use it. 

The Trump administration and Republicans agreed to add an inspector general and congressional panel to oversee the fund. However, some Democrats still worry about repeating the mistakes of the Troubled Asset Relief Program, when banks awarded executives with bonuses after receiving bailout money. 

Sanders said that if he did hold up the relief bill, he would push to “make sure that any corporation receiving financial assistance under this legislation does not lay off workers, cut wages or benefits, ship jobs overseas, or pay workers poverty wages.”

— CNBC’s Kayla Tausche and Lauren Hirsch contributed to this report

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