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Romney says he will propose extension of unemployment benefits during virtual town hall with NAACP president

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Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, walks through a hallway at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020, the day after he voted to convict President Donald Trump on one impeachment count.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — As federal lawmakers grapple with what kind of help to extend to people struggling because of the coronavirus pandemic, Sen. Mitt Romney said he plans to propose an extension of supplemental unemployment benefits on Thursday.

Romney was participating in a virtual town hall with NAACP President Derek Johnson Wednesday night when he made the announcement during a discussion of why helping people adversely impacted by economic shutdowns has become a political issue.

“One thing I will note, and I will introduce this tomorrow, which is that the unemployment insurance supplement, which people have been receiving and been counting on, should not disappear while we’re in the middle of this debate between Republicans and Democrats,” Romney said.

“And so I’m going to propose an ... unemployment insurance continuation through the end of the year. ... We’ll see if that gets accepted or not, by people on my side of the aisle, and across the aisle. But I’d like to make sure that the unemployment supplemental program continues so that people can pay their rent, put food on the table and have confidence, at least through the end of this year.”

Moderator April Ryan asked the senator if he could get “buy in” from other Republicans, especially from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

“My plan would say, look, a state can either go to a program where people receive 80% of what they were making while they were employed,” he said. “Or for the next month, they can get a $500 supplement on top of the regular state unemployment insurance, the month after that it goes down to $400 supplement, the month after that goes down to a $300 supplement on top of the regular state unemployment program.

“So that’s my proposal. I don’t know where my colleagues will stand. My guess is they’re going to say ‘Look, that’s pretty good compromise, Mitt,’ and I’ll get some support. The bigger question for me is where will the Democrats stand on that? But we’ll probably find out relatively soon.”

Romney said his will be only one proposal that the Senate could discuss Thursday. He said there is deep concern for those struggling with unemployment because of the public health decisions to shut down businesses.

“I think there’s a real belief, certainly on my side of the aisle, that we can’t hold off the unemployment supplemental benefit while we’re negotiating a very, very broad next phase of a release relief package,” Romney said.

The hourlong town hall included questions from around the country, including one from Utah, and the topics ranged from protecting voting rights, including vote by mail, to racial inequalities, to whether or not Romney should have run for president in 2016 instead of 2012.

Ryan started with praise for Romney’s decision to march with Black Lives Matter advocates in Washington, D.C, and then asked how the protests translate into policy initiatives that address systemic racism.

“I think the entire country has turned its focus on the fact that there is systemic, structural disadvantage associated with being African American, or for that matter, other peoples of color,” he said. “It’s been something we’ve been aware of. But, you know, after the height of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and ’70s, many people sort of let that fall from their consciousness, at least from the front burner of their consciousness, and I think, with the tragic death of George Floyd and the other events that have occurred in the past several weeks, I think Americans on both sides of the aisle, white America, Black America, brown America and so forth, are saying this continues to be a real problem. We have not resolved it; we have not solved this problem. And it’s unacceptable.”

He said there may be genuine differences in the way people want to address these problems, but the fact remains, they need to be addressed immediately.

“We are all children of the same God,” Romney said. “He loves us all. He loves us all, and to treat people differently and to have in place procedures or structures or policies that make it unfair or unequal, is simply wrong. And I think America recognizes that’s got to change.”

All three praised the late Rep. John Lewis, who will be eulogized Thursday by former President Barack Obama, and said he showed people how to bring about change simply by being persistent.

“We should not deify him,” Johnson said, “but we should use his life example to show that we all have the capacity to do good, to get in good trouble.”

Ryan asked Romney about Trump’s tweets saying he was going to rescind Obama-era regulations meant to eliminate housing discrimination.

“Well, I think it’s unfortunate,” Romney said when asked his thoughts on the tweets that said Trump wanted to prevent low-income housing from being built in suburban neighborhoods. “Because like you, I think the Fair Housing Act has not been fulfilled yet.”

He pointed out that his father George Romney was secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Richard Nixon.

“One of the things he fought for was open communities, was to take the Fair Housing Act and implement it fully,” Romney said. “Now, when President Nixon found out about that, he tried to shut it down. But my dad kept on battling, recognizing the only way you’re going to see a reduction in racism and discrimination in our country is if people of different ethnic backgrounds and races get to know each other, and go to the same schools, and go to the same churches, and have the same opportunities.

“And when that happens, why you’ll reduce the fear and the anxiety and that was part of what the Fair Housing Act was designed to do. So you know, I’m dismayed by the president’s tweet. We’ll see what actually happens. This is political season. Some things that are said are not actually done. I hope that’s one of those.”

Romney said it wasn’t just what Lewis accomplished as a congressman that is worth admiring, but the way he lived his life should be an example to those hoping to change the country — and the world — for the better.

“It’s true, in the case of John Lewis, this is a man who not only did things that are notable and should be recognized, but he by his personal character, and his vision, his fundamental goodness, and his willingness to make good trouble, make us uncomfortable, he changed many of us who watched him,” Romney said.

“And that’s a legacy which goes on and on. And I say this, not just to extol John Lewis, but to suggest to all of us who are listening tonight, that we also influence others. And it’s critical, if we want to change America that we make sure that our hearts are changed, and we communicate our love and care for others, regardless of our differences and separations.”