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Unemployment Claims Rise Again as Lawmakers Debate Extending Benefits

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  • At least 1.4 million people filed for unemployment last week, marking the first time claims have increased since March. The move comes as the extra $600 in unemployment benefits are set to expire next week.
  • On Wednesday, Senate Republicans announced they had agreed to a tentative $1 trillion coronavirus stimulus deal with the White House, which, among other things, included an expansion of loans to small businesses, funding for COVID testing and vaccines, aid to schools, and more.
  • The bill was supposed to be rolled out Thursday morning, but again got held up by the ongoing negotiations that have been stalled for weeks because of divisions within the Republican party.

Unemployment Numbers Spike

The government reported Thursday that 1.4 million people filed for unemployment last week, marking the first time unemployment claims have increased since March.

Separately, another 980,000 new claims were filed by freelancers, part-time workers, and others who do not qualify for state unemployment benefits but can receive aid under the emergency federal program.

Notably, the government did report that the number of continuing claims— claims filed by people who are already receiving unemployment and filed again— did drop from 17.4 million for the week ending July 4 to 16.1 million for the week ending July 11.

However, that data is reported on a week lag, and thus does not account for any of the closures or restrictions that have been put in place over the last two weeks. It also does not represent the fact that the U.S. has now reported more coronavirus cases in the last two weeks alone than in all of June.

While this week’s numbers are still much lower than the numbers reported in March before they started steadily declining, the fact that this is the first uptick since then is significant because it shows a broader trend.

“What you’re seeing is that, as the economy slows, the pace of claims picks back up — which really puts at risk the monthly jobs report over the next few months,” Joseph Brusuelas the chief economist at RSM, a multi-national network of accounting firms told the Washington Post. “The July numbers are going to be tenuous, but it’s August that I’m worried about.”

The timing of the spike is also highly relevant because it comes as the additional $600 in federal unemployment benefits are set to expire in just over a week.

In addition to the 20 to 30 million people who will lose those benefits if and when they expire, many economists have also warned that it would have a very serious effect on the already faltering economy.

“There is one clear takeaway from this morning’s unemployment insurance report –not extending the weekly $600 benefit supplement would be unconscionable,” Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation told USA Today. “Families will be evicted from their homes, poverty will soar, children will go hungry, businesses will shutter and the economy will tank.”

Meanwhile, Back in Congress

As that deadline looms, Senate Republicans and the White House are still in the middle of hashing out the details of another coronavirus stimulus package.

For weeks now, that process has been stalled by internal divisions within the Republican Party. While some of the Republicans are divided on specific issues, including unemployment, others simply do not want another stimulus bill at all.

With those negotiations getting down to the wire, Senate GOP leaders announced Wednesday that they had reached a tentative $1 trillion deal with White House officials. According to a draft summary, which was obtained by The New York Times, there are several areas the Republicans have agreed.

Among other things, the summary included $26 billion for vaccine development and deployment, $25 billion for coronavirus testing, a total of $105 billion for education— $30 billion of which would be set aside for schools that reopen, and a second round of loans to small businesses with more loan forgiveness.

Notably, the document did say that there would be another round of stimulus checks, but it did not say how much they would be or who they would go to.

Also of note is what was not in the summary. The plan explicitly states Republicans will not give any money to state and local governments to help with budget holes and layoffs, though it does note that aid will likely be added back in during negotiations with the Democrats, who want hundreds of billions to go to states and cities. 

The summary also does not include a payroll tax cut— something that was pushed by President Donald Trump for both this stimulus package and last— and something that was rejected by Democrats and Republicans both times.

Divisions Linger 

It does appear to show there has been at least some compromising between the Senate GOP and the White House. In addition to the tax cuts not being included, the increased testing and the money to schools that are not reopening are also things the Trump administration had opposed.

However, despite all that, there are still things the party is struggling to hammer out. According to reports, Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) was hoping to roll out that package Thursday morning, but was instead met with yet another round negotiations between Senate GOP leaders and the White House.

As in the earlier negotiations, one of the major sticking points reportedly still up for debate was unemployment benefits. While the Republicans agree that they want to cut the jobless payments from the current $600, they disagree on how much they should cut.

According to reports, Senate Republicans had previously floated the idea of decreasing the benefits to $200 per week. Then CNBC reported Wednesday that they were now considering extending the benefits through the end of the year at just $100 a week.

However, on Thursday morning, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said the extension will be based on 70% wage replacement, which means that the benefits would amount to about 70% of a typical worker’s income while they were employed.

According to Ernie Tedeschi, an economist in the Treasury Department under the Obama administration who spoke to the Post, a 70% wage replaced would put the extended benefits at about $175 per week.

“If they lowered it to $200 a week, 30 million workers would wake up with a pay cut from a third to a half overnight,” he said. “While $200 is marginally better than full expiration, the U.S. would still take a major economic hit from this summer and this fall as a result from it.”

While that would be on top of state unemployment, those benefits vary drastically and often fall short. According to CNN, state benefits on their own generally replace only 40% of wages.

Upcoming Battle With Democrats

As Republicans continue struggling to come to a consensus, the clock is ticking. 

With several key elements of the plan bound to a tight time table, Trump administration officials have emphasized the need to act by the end of next week.

“Let me just remind people: the time-sensitive issue we’re talking about is next Friday on unemployment and schools,” Mnuchin told reporters Thursday morning. “Some of this stuff, if it takes us a couple of weeks to work with the Democrats and agree on all the pieces we can.” 

However, according to reports, McConnell has said that that timeline as unrealistic because, right now, Republicans have not even agreed on a bill within their own party. Once they do, they still face a battle with the Democrats, who have pushed for extending the $600 through the end of the year— a provision that was included in the $3 trillion stimulus bill passed by the House in May.

Even beyond the unemployment debate, many Republicans are worried that they will not be able to get Democrats on board with their proposals at all. 

While speaking to reporters Wednesday, Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) said that even if Republicans do overcome their internal divisions, they would be unable to bridge the “pretty big gap” with Democrats, who support the $3 trillion bill, which prioritizes multiple things Republicans oppose.

In order to meet some of the pressing deadlines, both Senate Republicans and Trump administration officials have said that they intend to propose a series of bills, rather than just one comprehensive package. Democrats, however, have rejected that plan.

“This is a package. We cannot piecemeal this,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said in a press conference Thursday morning. “What we have seen so far falls very short of the challenge that we face in order to defeat the virus and to open our schools and to open our economy.” 

“We’re not going to take care of one portion of suffering people and leave everyone else hanging,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) added at the same briefing Thursday. “This is a comprehensive proposal that addresses the many problems of COVID, and we have to address it as a totality. ” 

“One of the reasons we’re up against this cliff is because Republicans have dithered,” Schumer added, saying that he and Pelosi had urged Republicans to come to the table three weeks ago, but they never responded.

“Now the Senate Republicans have finally woken up to the calamity in our country, they have been so divided, so disorganized and so unprepared that they have to struggle to draft even a partisan proposal within their own conference, they can’t come together. Even after all this time, it appears the Republican legislative response to COVID is ununified, unserious, and unsatisfactory.” 

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (Politico) (The Washington Post)

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Supreme Court Rules High School Football Coach Can Pray on Field

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All of our rights are “hanging in the balance,” wrote Justice Sonia Sotomayor in a dissenting opinion.


Court’s Conservatives Break With 60 Years of History

The Supreme Court on Monday ruled in favor of a former high school football coach who lost his job after he refused to stop praying on the field at the end of games.

Joseph Kennedy, who was hired at Bremerton High School in Washington State in 2008, kneeled at the 50-yard line after games for years and prayed. He was often joined by some of his players, as well as others from the opposing team.

In 2015, the school asked him not to pray if it interfered with his duties or involved students.

Shortly after, Kennedy was placed on paid administrative leave, and after a school official recommended that his contract not be renewed for the 2016 season he did not reapply for the position.

Kennedy sued the school, eventually appealing the case to the Supreme Court.

The justices voted 6 to 3, with the liberal justices dissenting.

“Respect for religious expressions is indispensable to life in a free and diverse republic — whether those expressions take place in a sanctuary or on a field, and whether they manifest through the spoken word or a bowed head,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion.

“Here, a government entity sought to punish an individual for engaging in a brief, quiet, personal religious observance,” he added.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a dissenting opinion.

“Today’s decision is particularly misguided because it elevates the religious rights of a school official, who voluntarily accepted public employment and the limits that public employment entails, over those of his students, who are required to attend school and who this court has long recognized are particularly vulnerable and deserving of protection,” she said.

“In doing so, the court sets us further down a perilous path in forcing states to entangle themselves with religion, with all of our rights hanging in the balance.”

The defense in the case argued that the public nature of Kennedy’s prayers put pressure on students to join him, and that he was acting in his capacity as a public employee, not a private citizen.

Kennedy’s lawyers contended that such an all-encompassing definition of his job duties denied him his right to self-expression on school grounds.

“This is just so awesome,” Kennedy said in a statement following the decision. “All I’ve ever wanted was to be back on the field with my guys … I thank God for answering our prayers and sustaining my family through this long battle.”

Religious Liberty or Separation of Church and State?

Sixty years ago, the Supreme Court decided that the government cannot organize or promote prayer in public schools, and it has since generally abided by that jurisprudence.

But the court led by Chief Justice John Roberts has been increasingly protective of religious expression, especially after the confirmation of three conservative Trump-appointed judges.

Reactions to the ruling were mostly split between liberals who saw the separation of church and state being dissolved and conservatives who hailed it as a victory for religious liberty.

Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, which represented the Bremerton school district, said in a statement that the ruling “gutted decades of established law that protected students’ religious freedom.”

“If Coach Kennedy were named Coach Akbar and he had brought a prayer blanket to the 50 yard line to pray after a game,” one Twitter user said, “I’ve got a 401(k) that says this illegitimate, Christofascist SCOTUS rules 6-3 against him.”

“The people defending former Coach Kennedy’s right to kneel on the field after the game to pray – are the ones condemning Colin Kaepernick’s right to kneel on the field to protest police brutality against Black Americans,” another user wrote.

Others, like Republican Congressmember Ronny Jackson and former Secretary of State for the Trump administration Mike Pompeo, celebrated the ruling for protecting religious freedom and upholding what they called the right to pray.

“I am excited to build on this victory and continue securing our inalienable right to religious freedom,” Pompeo wrote.

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (The New York Times) (Fox News)

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Rep. Schiff Urges DOJ to Investigate Trump for Election Crimes: “There’s Enough Evidence”

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“When the Justice Department finds evidence of criminal potential criminal wrongdoing, they need to investigate,” the congressman said.


Schiff Says DOJ Should Launch Inquiry

Rep. Adam Schiff (R-Ca.) told Rogue Rocket that he believes there is “certainly […] enough evidence for the Justice Department to open an investigation” into possible election crimes committed by former President Donald Trump.

Schiff, who took the lead in questioning witnesses testifying before the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection on Tuesday, said that it will be up to the DOJ to determine whether “they have proof beyond a reasonable doubt” of criminal activity, but added that an investigation must first be launched.

“Donald Trump should be treated like any other citizen,” the congressman said, noting that a federal judge in California has already ruled that Trump and his allies “likely” engaged in multiple federal criminal acts. “When the Justice Department finds evidence of criminal potential criminal wrongdoing, they need to investigate.”

“One of the concerns I have is it’s a year and a half since these events. And while […] there’s an investigation going on in Fulton County by the district attorney, I don’t see a federal grand jury convened in Atlanta looking into this, and I think it’s fair to ask why,” Schiff continued, referencing the ongoing inquiry into Trump’s attempts to overturn the election in Georgia.

“Normally, the Justice Department doesn’t wait for Congress to go first. They pursue evidence and they have the subpoena power. They’re often much more agile than the Congress. And I think it’s important that it not just be the lower-level people who broke into the Capitol that day and committed those acts of violence who are under the microscope,” he continued. “I think anyone who engaged in criminal activity trying to overturn the election where there’s evidence that they may have engaged in criminal acts should be investigated.”

Schiff Takes Aim at DOJ’s Handling of Committee Subpoenas

Schiff also expressed frustration with how the DOJ has handled referrals the committee has made for former Trump officials who have refused to comply with subpoenas to testify before the panel.

“We have referred four people for criminal prosecution who have obstructed our investigation. The Justice Department has only moved forward with two of them,” he stated. “That’s not as powerful an incentive as we would like. The law requires the Justice Department to present these cases to the grand jury when we refer them, and by only referring half of them, it sends a very mixed message about whether congressional subpoenas need to be complied with.”

As far as why the congressman thought the DOJ has chosen to operate in this manner in regards to the Jan. 6 panel’s investigation, he said he believes “the leadership of the department is being very cautious.” 

“I think that they want to make sure that the department avoids controversy if possible, doesn’t do anything that could even be perceived as being political,” Schiff continued. “And while I appreciate that sentiment […] at the same time, the rule of law has to be applied equally to everyone. If you’re so averse, […] it means that you’re giving effectively a pass or immunity to people who may have broken the law. That, too, is a political decision, and I think it’s the wrong decision.”

On the Note of Democracy

Schiff emphasized the importance of the American people working together to protect democracy in the fallout of the insurrection.

“I really think it’s going to require a national movement of people to step up to preserve our democracy. This is not something that I think Congress can do alone. We’re going to try to protect those institutions, but Republicans are fighting this tooth and nail,” he asserted. “It’s difficult to get through a Senate where Mitch McConnell can filibuster things.”

“We don’t have the luxury of despair when it comes to what we’re seeing around us. We have the obligation to do what generations did before us, and that is defend our democracy,” the congressman continued. “We had to go to war in World War II to defend our democracy from the threat of fascism. You know, we’re not called upon to make those kinds of sacrifices. We see the bravery of people in Ukraine putting their lives on the line to defend their country, their sovereignty, their democracy. Thank God we’re not asked to do that.”

“So what we have to do is, by comparison, so much easier. But it does require us to step up, to be involved, to rally around local elections officials who are doing their jobs, who are facing death threats, and to protect them and to push back against efforts around the country to pass laws to make it easier for big liars to overturn future elections.” 

“We are not passengers in all of this, unable to affect the course of our country. We can, you know, grab the rudder and steer this country in the direction that we want.”

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (The Washington Post) (CNN)

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Senate Passes Bill to Help Veterans Suffering From Burn Pit Exposure

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For Biden, who believes his son Beau may have died from brain cancer caused by burn pits, the issue is personal.


Veterans to Get Better Healthcare

The Senate voted 84-14 Thursday to pass a bill that would widely expand healthcare resources and benefits to veterans who were exposed to burn pits while deployed overseas.

Until about 2010, the Defense Department used burn pits to dispose of trash from military bases in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other locations, dumping things like plastics, rubber, chemical mixtures, and medical waste into pits and burning them with jet fuel.

Numerous studies and reports have demonstrated a link between exposure to the toxic fumes emitted by the pits and health problems such as respiratory ailments and rare cancers. The DoD has estimated that nearly 3.5 million veterans may have inhaled enough smoke to suffer from related health problems.

For years, the Department of Veterans Affairs resisted calls to recognize the link between exposure and illness, arguing it had not been scientifically proven and depriving many veterans of disability benefits and medical reimbursements.

Over the past year, however, the VA relented, awarding presumptive benefit status to veterans exposed to burn pits, but it only applied to those who were diagnosed with asthma, rhinitis, and sinusitis within 10 years of their service.

The latest bill would add 23 conditions to the list of what the VA covers, including hypertension. It also calls for investments in VA health care facilities, claims processing, and the VA workforce, while strengthening federal research on toxic exposure.

The bill will travel to the House of Representatives next, where Speaker Nancy Pelosi has pledged to push it through quickly. Then it will arrive at the White House for final approval.

An Emotional Cause for Many

Ahead of a House vote on an earlier version of the bill in March, comedian John Stewart publically slammed Congress for taking so long to act.

“They’re all going to say the same thing. ‘We want to do it. We want to support the veterans. But we want to do it the right way. We want to be responsible,’” he said. “You know what would have been nice? If they had been responsible 20 years ago and hadn’t spent trillions of dollars on overseas adventures.”

“They could have been responsible in the seventies when they banned this kind of thing in the United States,” he continued. “You want to do it here? Let’s dig a giant fucking pit, 10 acres long, and burn everything in Washington with jet fuel. And then let me know how long they want to wait before they think it’s going to cause some health problems.”

For President Biden, the issue is personal. He has said he believes burn pits may have caused the brain cancer that killed his son Beau in 2015.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer applauded the fact the long-awaited benefits could soon arrive for those impacted.

“The callousness of forcing veterans who got sick as they were fighting for us because of exposure to these toxins to have to fight for years in the VA to get the benefits they deserved — Well, that will soon be over. Praise God,” he said during a speech on Thursday.

A 2020 member survey by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America found that 86% of respondents were exposed to burn pits or other toxins.

Although burn pits have largely been scaled down, the DoD has not officially banned them, and at least nine were still in operation in April 2019.

See what others are saying: (CNN) (Military Times) (Politico)

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