Vulnerable GOP senators offer more generous unemployment plan than their party proposed

Key Points
  • GOP Sens. Mitt Romney, Susan Collins and Martha McSally put forward their own unemployment insurance plan that offers more generous benefits than the one Senate Republicans proposed last week.
  • Extending enhanced federal jobless benefits is a major sticking point in coronavirus relief talks, as Democrats want to sustain the payments at $600 per week. 
  • Collins and McSally are running in two of 2020's most important Senate races. 
U.S. Senator Martha McSally (R-AZ)
Michael Brochstein | SOPA Images | LightRocket | Getty Images

Three Republican senators, two of whom face tough elections this fall, released a bill Wednesday that offers more generous unemployment insurance than their party's existing coronavirus aid plan would. 

The proposal from Sens. Mitt Romney of Utah, Susan Collins of Maine and Martha McSally of Arizona would give states the choice of paying recipients either $400 or $500 per week in August, on top of what they would normally receive from the state. In September, the benefit would drop to $400 a week in every state. 

From October through December, the plan would change to 80% wage replacement. States could seek a waiver to instead pay out $300 a week if their unemployment systems cannot handle replacing a percentage of previous pay. 

The bill would pay more to people struggling to find work in a ravaged economy than the proposal Senate Republicans put forward last week. That legislation would extend the benefit at $200 per week through September, then continue it at 70% wage replacement. 

The plan from the three Republicans comes as Democrats and the Trump administration struggle to agree on an unemployment insurance extension as part of their fifth pandemic relief package. A $600 per week extra federal payment — approved in March to combat a wave of unemployment — expired at the end of July. 

Sen. Marco Rubio: Both sides must make concessions in Covid-19 stimulus talks
Sen. Marco Rubio: Both sides must make concessions in Covid-19 stimulus talks

It looks increasingly likely Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., will have to rely on the votes of Democrats and his least conservative members to get an aid bill through the chamber. The plan from Romney, Collins and McSally signals their willingness to move in the direction of Democrats as negotiations continue Wednesday. 

Though the White House reportedly offered to extend the federal benefit at $400 per week into December, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., signaled Wednesday that he would only accept a deal that continues the $600 payments. On Tuesday, McConnell said he is "prepared to support" a deal if Democrats and the White House can reach one. 

Collins and McSally are running in two of the most important 2020 Senate races. Their outcomes will help to determine whether Democrats can flip the four net seats needed to win control of the chamber next year. 

U.S. Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) asks a question to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in Washington, DC, July 30, 2020.
Greg Nash | Pool | Reuters

Romney has shown a willingness to break with his party since he took office last year. Most notably, he was the only Republican to vote to convict President Donald Trump and remove him from office in February after his impeachment trial. Romney will not face reelection until 2024. 

In statements unveiling the bill, the senators said the benefits would help people who still cannot find work as the economy flounders. They also said the phased-out approach would not discourage people from seeking jobs. Republicans have argued the $600 payments disincentivize a return to work, though it is unclear how much of an effect it has had as industries from hospitality to entertainment and travel suffer with public health restrictions in place. 

The powerful U.S. Chamber of Commerce endorsed the legislation after its release. 

Collins, a fourth-term senator, will face Democratic Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon in November. An average of recent polls shows a small lead for Gideon, according to RealClearPolitics.

McSally will run against Democratic former astronaut Mark Kelly in her bid to serve the remainder of the late Sen. John McCain's term through 2022. Recent surveys have found Kelly leading McSally, according to RealClearPolitics.

A CNBC/Change Research poll released last month found 61% of likely voters in Arizona supported extending the $600 per week federal unemployment benefit. Only 37% of respondents opposed the policy. 

Kelly held a 47% to 45% edge over McSally in the same survey. 

A majority of respondents in both Michigan and North Carolina — two other swing states where senators face reelection this year — also supported an extension of the $600 per week benefit, according to the CNBC/Change Research poll. Democrat Gary Peters and Republican Thom Tillis are hoping to keep their seats in Michigan and North Carolina, respectively. 

Subscribe to CNBC on YouTube.