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As Congress debates aid, jobless claims reach three-month high

As jobless claims climb, McConnell's interest in economic relief grows - not to help struggling families, but rather, to help Loeffler and Perdue.
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A person files an application for unemployment benefits on April 16, 2020, in Arlington, Va.Olivier Douliery / AFP via Getty Images file

As regular readers know, progress on weekly unemployment claims has been hit or miss in recent months, though the new report from the Labor Department pointed in an ugly direction.

In the week ending December 12, the advance figure for seasonally adjusted initial claims was 885,000, an increase of 23,000 from the previous week's revised level. The previous week's level was revised up by 9,000 from 853,000 to 862,000. The 4-week moving average was 812,500, an increase of 34,250 from the previous week's revised average.

The new total is the worst the United States has seen since early-September, reinforcing fears that the economy that was already struggling to regain its footing is suddenly taking a turn for the worse. It's also the 39th consecutive week in which the number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits was worse than at any time during the Great Recession.

What's more, it's not the only discouraging economic news from this week. The Commerce Department reported yesterday that U.S. retail sales declined in both October and November, falling well short of projections.

All of which leads us back to the point we discuss every week around this time: the country still needs economic relief as the coronavirus pandemic continues to take a brutal toll.

There's reason for cautious optimism that at least some aid is on the way. Bipartisan negotiations on Capitol Hill have proven constructive this week, and a $900 billion package started to take shape late Tuesday. Some of the final touches and details are proving tricky, but the contours of a bipartisan agreement appear to be roughly in place.

How could the Republican-led Senate consider a $900 billion bill when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) insisted for weeks he wouldn't go above $500 billion? Evidently, we know what changed his mind.

In a call on Wednesday afternoon, Mr. McConnell said that Senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, who are both facing January runoffs that will determine which party controls the Senate, were "getting hammered" for Congress's failure to deliver more pandemic aid to struggling Americans — particularly the direct payments — and that enacting the measure could help them.

Or put another way, as jobless claims climb, and the economy shows new signs of weakness, Mitch McConnell's interest in economic relief is growing -- not to help struggling families, but rather, to help Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue in Georgia.

For now, the deadline on getting something done is tomorrow night, but it's likely that lawmakers will agree to give themselves a few more days to wrap up the process. Watch this space.