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As unemployment claims remain high, aid faces uncertain future

The US still needs economic relief as the coronavirus pandemic continues to take a brutal toll. Thankfully, the door that was closed now appears ajar.
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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 was an improvement over last week's data.

In the week ending November 28, the advance figure for seasonally adjusted initial claims was 712,000, a decrease of 75,000 from the previous week's revised level. The previous week's level was revised up by 9,000 from 778,000 to 787,000. The 4-week moving average was 739,500, a decrease of 11,250 from the previous week's revised average.

We've now had 37 consecutive weeks in which the number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits was worse than at any time during the Great Recession.

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.

Is there a chance an aid package might yet pass? It remains a heavy lift, but the odds have improved -- at least a little -- over the past couple of days. Politico summarized the lay of the land this way:

Here's why you should be a tad bit optimistic about the status of Covid relief negotiations: The two sides are talking, they are exchanging paper, and both sides say they want an agreement. We always thought that the two sides needed a must-pass deadline — and they have one: the Dec. 11 government funding date. Here's why you should be pessimistic: The two sides really haven't moved that much on the issues, and time is short. State and local funding and liability overhaul remain big, big issues.

Democratic congressional leaders, feeling increasingly desperate, yesterday offered support for a relief package crafted by a bipartisan group of senators. It's vastly smaller and less ambitious than the one Democrats have championed for months, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) are so eager to get something done, they're prepared to use the $908 billion blueprint as the basis for negotiations.

They're also hoping their announcement will put added pressure on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who unveiled an unfortunate alternative plan of his own this week -- which by some measures, is actually worse than his previous proposal.

As real negotiations get underway, it's an open question whether, and to what extent, McConnell actually wants an agreement. He has, after all, largely ignored the question for the last seven months, and with Joe Biden poised to enter the White House, it's not at all clear that the Senate GOP leader is eager to improve economic conditions.

In theory, this would ordinarily be the point at which presidential leadership made a real difference -- especially with a self-declared, world-class deal-maker in the Oval Office -- but Donald Trump has played no meaningful role in the talks. Worse, it's not at all clear what he actually wants in terms of solutions: Trump said in October that a $2.2 trillion plan was too small, but the White House then endorsed McConnell's $500 billion this week.

The week before Election Day, Trump told reporters, "After the election, we will get the best stimulus package you have ever seen."

If he intends to deliver on that promise, the outgoing president might have to do something unusual: engage in actual work.