Richmond Times-Dispatch: ‘Help on way’ – confidence builds behind relief package in Congress

RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH, MICHAEL MARTZ

Virginia’s senators say Congress is poised to act on a $900 billion package for short-term emergency relief to help American families and businesses survive a harrowing winter until newly approved vaccines can bring the COVID-19 pandemic under control.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., a leader in a bipartisan centrist coalition that created the framework for the package, said he will support the compromise package, even though he is unhappy that the price of direct payments to low- and middle-income Americans appears to be fewer weeks of unemployment assistance for people who face the loss of remaining jobless benefits the day after Christmas.

“Help is on the way!” Warner said in a press briefing on Thursday, as House and Senate leaders in both parties sought to complete work on a relief package that would accompany a $1.3 trillion spending bill to allow the federal government to operate another year. “It shouldn’t have taken this long.”

The package will include direct payments of at least $600, which would be half of the $1,200 stimulus payments sent to individuals who earned less than $75,000 a year in the CARES Act adopted in March at the beginning of the public health crisis. However, those checks are critical to Rep. Donald McEachin, D-4th, and other members of Congress in both parties.

“I think it’s more of a full and fair package if we include this kind of relief than it would be without it,” McEachin said in an interview on Wednesday.

“In this situation, a half a loaf is better than none,” he said.

Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, also supports standalone House legislation to include direct payments. “It’s important for individuals,” she said in an interview on Thursday. “It’s also important for the economy.”

But, she said, “Unemployment benefits and vaccine distribution, those are the top priorities.”

The inclusion of direct payments is likely to reduce the duration of a proposed $300 weekly unemployment benefit from 16 weeks to 10, which dismayed Warner, one of the “gang of eight” Democratic and Republican senators who have led the post-election push for a short-term emergency relief package.

“I think that is a mistake,” he said. “I think it is a mistake morally, taking away benefits from people hurting the worst. I think it’s a mistake economically.”

However, Warner added, “That will not preclude me from voting for the deal.”

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., played a supporting role in the Senate negotiations over a proposal to provide $160 billion in relief to state and local governments in exchange for protecting businesses from legal liabilities related to the pandemic, which became an intractable political barrier to adopting the entire $908 billion package sought by the coalition.

Kaine, in a press briefing on Thursday, said the negotiations had “narrowed the differences” but not enough to persuade the Republican Senate majority to support additional state and local government aid or to gain Democratic support for broad liability protections for businesses from people who allege harm during the pandemic.

“We agreed to sort of decouple those issues from the COVID relief bill,” he said.

The main $748 billion relief bill proposed this week by Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, included billions of dollars in aid for small businesses, unemployment benefits, emergency food assistance, housing relief to prevent evictions after a federal moratorium expires after New Year’s Day, as well as other pressing needs such as education, health care, public transit, broadband telecommunication, the U.S. Postal Service, mental health and people with substance use disorders.

However, the bill did not include direct payments to individuals and families, as Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., demanded in return for supporting the government spending bill and relief package.

McEachin, who is part of a bipartisan push in the House for including direct payments in the package, said, “It’s just fundamentally wrong to give relief to all these folks we’re giving relief to and not give relief to average Americans.”

Kaine said the decision to drop state and local government aid from the package freed money to pay for another round of stimulus checks, which he said could range from $600 and $800 for people who are below an income threshold that also is still being negotiated.

“We want it to go to people who’ve suffered,” he said. “It doesn’t need to go to people who’ve not had a financial hit.”

“I feel very, very good about it,” Kaine said.

Warner said state and local governments also would benefit from other parts of the package, such as $82 billion for education, $25 billion for emergency rental assistance and $16 billion for distributing vaccines and other direct measures to stop the spread of COVID-19.

He also wants to ensure that the package targets relief to small businesses that have lost money — at least 30% in any quarter this year compared to the same quarter last year — and minority-owned businesses that don’t have the same access to lending institutions as others.

Both senators support aid for Virginia’s hard-hit restaurants and performing venues. “They were the first to close and they will probably be the last to reopen,” said Warner, who also favors help for the Richmond Flying Squirrels and other minor-league sports franchises, although he’s not sure they will get it in this package.

Currently, the negotiations are happening within “the four corners” — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy — with a deadline looming Friday for a government shutdown if Congress doesn’t pass a spending bill.

“If Congress doesn’t act, it will become the ultimate Grinch of Christmas,” Warner said.

Spanberger has opposed larger stimulus packages backed by House Democrats because they had no chance of passing Congress, but she’s eager to vote for this one as early as Friday.

“It needed to be done months ago,” she said. “It needed to be done yesterday. People have waited long enough.”

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