Culpeper Star-Exponent: Spanberger: COVID relief package took long hours of bargaining

CULPEPER STAR-EXPONENT, CLINT SCHEMMER

Central Virginia lawmaker Abigail Spanberger expressed happiness Monday that Congress was poised to deliver COVID-19 relief and economic stimulus to Americans, but unhappy with the tortuous path Congress took to do so.

Spanberger, who played a significant role in nudging legislators in both parties toward the compromise, told the Star-Exponent she was “smiling a little bit” at the prospect, a feeling mixed with “a little bit of exhaustion.”

Spanberger said she was “very disappointed” it took Congress so long to act.

But in the end, the negotiations to reach a deal were “really rewarding,” she said, likening centrist lawmakers in the House’s bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, which she is a member, to “a dog with a bone.”

“We just weren’t willing to let go, and finally got (the legislation) to where it needed to be,” Spanberger said in the interview. “I’m glad that we demonstrated the House and Senate shouldn’t depend on the elected leadership to drive the agenda.”

The Democrat, who represents the commonwealth’s 7th Congressional District, noted that the package provides one-time $600 “survival” checks, plus rental assistance, and up to $300 per week in federal unemployment assistance for 11 weeks.

The enhanced jobless benefits would provide a lifeline for hard-hit workers until March 14. The new benefit is half the amount provided by the CARES Act in the spring.

She said the $600 direct payment should have been larger. Spanberger said she regrets the legislation doesn’t provide relief to state and local governments, because of Republican concerns about businesses’ legal liability.

But, Spanberger noted, the package eases restaurant employees’ ability to get relief, and will provide billions of dollars in food-security aid, Paycheck Protection Program loans to small businesses, Save Our Stages Act grants for small-venue employees who are out of work while the pandemic prevents live shows from being held, Spanberger highlighted.

Significantly, the package extends, by a year, the deadline to apply for CARES Act funding. That should enable school systems and county governments to seek reimbursement for things such as new heating and air conditioning systems, emergency generators, and other needs made critical by the pandemic, she said.

Her favorite part, she said. is that the package will provide billions of dollars to distribute COVID-19 vaccines.

Spanberger was also pleased that it will provide $250 million to make telehealth services, including mental health counseling, more widely available.

Many community health centers and hospitals in the 7th District had stressed to her the urgent need for more easily accessible mental-health care, given people’s anxieties over job losses, health-care issues and the pandemic generally, she said.

Spanberger said she favored some of Democratic leaders’ unsuccessful proposals for the final package, such as more aid to individual Americans and to local and state governments, but appreciated that the deal required approval from the Republican-controlled Senate and President Donald Trump.

Reaching a compromise that a bipartisan majority in both chambers of Congress would support took many days and nights of direct negotiations by rank-and-file members behind the scenes.

Spanberger and other centrist legislators labored for months to shape proposals on which Republicans and Democrats could agree and to build enough momentum that House and Senate leaders would join in supporting such a compromise. In the end, they succeeded.

Over the summer, Spanberger and others were frustrated that congressional leaders let negotiations deadlock over the relief package’s price tag, with the House and Senate unwilling to budge.

“Every argument was over dollars,” she said. “People weren’t talking about programs that matter, that would deliver relief.”

Spanberger called summer’s situation “a misuse of vital time, particularly during a global pandemic when many members of Congress weren’t in Washington, D.C.” to vote on a relief bill.

Spanberger said she was “very disappointed” that House legislators didn’t focus their time “on the end goal, delivering relief.” She voted against House leaders’ bill, saying it would never get bipartisan support.

The same sort of thing happened in the Senate, which also let partisanship kill deal-making that would have helped Americans, she said.

In September, centrists met privately in small groups to hash out what essential programs that a relief and stimulus package should undertake, with help to start that month or in October and continuing through March.

At one point, she recalled, people were clamoring for Speaker Pelosi to parley with her Senate counterpart, Mitch McConnell. But the two leaders just weren’t talking.

So, some members decided, “Let’s write a script (for them),” she said.

Much of what is in this week’s package was agreed upon in those sessions, Spanberger said.

The framework generated noteworthy support from both sides of the aisle, earning praise from Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who said they’d dig in and help finish the legislation.

But that week, when U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, senators’ attention shifted to the nomination of Ginsburg’s successor and the nomination proceedings for Amy Coney Barrett, Spanberger said. That took the wind out of the proposal’s sails in the Senate.

Then, quietly, a few House members crossed the U.S. Capitol to confer with senators in the “hideaway” office of Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

The major elements of this week’s relief package emerged from those discussions, the Virginian said. “We wrote the framework,” she said.

Spanberger, and Reps. Fred Upton, R-Mich.; Dusty Johnson, R-S.D.; Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D.-N.J., were the House members who met with Manchin and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.

“Something needed to be done to kick-start negotiations,” she said, explaining that the negotiators committed to finding a good starting point on which members of both parties could reach consensus.

“We served it up on a platter … and said, here, ‘We’re 90 percent of the way done,’ ” Spanberger said.

During those talks, which continued and grew in private and in Zoom meetings with various lawmakers, direct payments to Americans went into the bill and support for state and local governments came out, Spanberger said.

Then the House and Senate leadership stepped in and negotiated the finer points, she said.

Now, with Congress due by midnight to vote on the package, Spanberger said she was breathing a sign of relief.

Spanberger expressed pleasure that COVID-19 help is in sight, given that Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have been approved by the FDA, and are beginning to reach frontline health-care workers.

But “the light at the end of the tunnel is down a very, very long tunnel,” she said. “People need to keep wearing face masks and socially distancing. Everyone should be very careful with how they engage with other people. We’re seeing cases rise now, due in part to Thanksgiving celebrations when people from different households got together with family members.”

“The virus is transmitted through one’s breath and the air,” she said. “We have to be patient and not let our guards down; that’s really important this holiday season. If we do that and get vaccines, perhaps Christmas 2021 will look and feel a lot more like normal.”

She suggested people visit the Virginia Department of Health’s website, vdh.virginia.gov, for the latest news and advice.

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