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Lawmakers should spread some holiday cheer

If the state-ordered “freeze” through Thanksgiving wasn’t enough, the Oregon Employment Department estimates as many as 70,000 Oregonians could see their unemployment benefits disappear the day after Christmas.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers are considering a special legislative session in December that could take up more assistance for small businesses, as well as continued help for landlords and tenants.

Congress extended regular unemployment benefits from 26 to 39 weeks as part of the coronavirus relief package passed in March. The package also created Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a program for self-employed workers normally not eligible for unemployment benefits. Both of those programs expire at the end of the year, so benefits effectively end Dec. 26 because the following week stretches into January.

The Legislature can’t help with the unemployment benefits — the dollars are federal, and only Congress can allocate more.

Signals from Capitol Hill have been mixed for some time. House Democrats passed a $2.2 trillion second stimulus package in May, but the Republican Senate balked at that number. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has advocated a $500 billion package without direct payments to individual Americans. The White House at one point offered $1.9 trillion, but Democrats insisted on the $2.2 trillion figure.

Congressional leaders on both sides met on Thursday, which is encouraging but no guarantee that a deal will emerge this year. Fingers are being pointed and accusations of playing politics lobbed back and forth.

We’re not interested in placing blame for the standoff. Americans need the help as COVID-19 cases spike, businesses struggle to stay afloat and workers scramble to stay in their homes.

Congress needs to put partisan bickering aside and do what is best for their constituents. If that means giving some ground to reach a compromise, just get it done.

At the state level, House Speaker Tina Kotek has called on Gov. Kate Brown to invoke untested constitutional authority granted by voters in 2010 and declare a “catastrophic emergency” due to the coronavirus. That would allow her to convene a special session that could be held remotely, rather than requiring lawmakers to be present in Salem.

That would allow the Legislature to address pressing concerns including wildfire relief efforts and extending a moratorium on evictions that is set to expire Dec. 31. If they act on evictions, lawmakers can and should make sure landlords are compensated for lost rent payments.

Kotek wants to spend $100 million from state emergency reserves, which is more than the Legislative Emergency Board has available. The Emergency Board, composed of lawmakers, has the authority to appropriate money between legislative sessions, but is limited to a budget approved by the Legislature as a whole.

Brown has said she is open to calling a special session, but only if lawmakers agree on a limited number of measures that will be considered.

While the state — and the nation as a whole — waits on Congress to do the right thing and help Americans get through a holiday season like no other, Oregon lawmakers should do what they can to help as well.

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