Richmond Times Dispatch: Warner, Spanberger help lead push for $908 billion COVID relief package

RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH, MICHAEL MARTZ

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, have moved to the forefront of a bipartisan push for Congress to deliver emergency relief to Americans struggling to survive the intensifying COVID-19 public health crisis.

Warner and Spanberger helped fashion a $908 billion framework for emergency COVID-19 relief unveiled Tuesday by a coalition of centrist lawmakers from both political parties and chambers of Congress. The proponents say it’s essential to help people, businesses and governments survive until new vaccines are widely distributed to bring the coronavirus pandemic under control.

“It would be stupidity on steroids if Congress left for Christmas without doing an interim package as a bridge,” Warner said during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol that was led by Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Susan Collins, R-Maine.

The kickoff included Spanberger and other members of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus in the House of Representatives.

The proposed package does not include individual stimulus checks, like the CARES Act Congress passed in March, but it would provide $180 billion for an additional $300 in weekly unemployment benefits over 18 weeks for people who have lost their jobs during the pandemic. It would provide $288 billion in potentially forgivable loans to small businesses that keep their employees on payroll through hard times.

It also would provide:

  • $12 billion for community and minority lending institutions critical to bolstering Black-owned and other minority-owned businesses, as Warner had sought in legislation he introduced earlier this year;
  • $82 billion for K-12 schools and higher education institutions struggling to carry out their missions; and
  • $45 billion for public transportation companies, such as the Washington Metro system, which faces a projected half-billion-dollar budget shortfall that could make life much harder for workers in the Northern Virginia suburbs.

Spanberger, a centrist Democrat re-elected last month in a traditionally Republican House district, said success depends on negotiating a package that can win votes from all points on the political spectrum, unlike previous stimulus packages that failed because they did too much or too little to move through Congress.

“It’s not from the middle or one side or another,” she said. “It’s about the willingness that we have to work together. If it doesn’t have the votes to get to the president’s desk, it is nothing.”

Supporters said House Democratic and Senate Republican leaders, who control majorities in their chambers, haven’t made any commitments to bringing legislation based on the framework up for votes this month.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, a former Republican presidential candidate who has sometimes bucked President Donald Trump, said, “I don’t have any prediction how the White House will react.”

But Romney said the pandemic requires Congress and the White House to push aside differences, including concerns he shares about increasing the nation’s budget deficit, to deal with a public health emergency that is devastating families, businesses and the American economy.

“COVID has created a crisis, and in a crisis, the people expect Congress to act,” he said.

Congress adopted and Trump signed four emergency relief packages totaling about $3 trillion in the first months of the pandemic, but efforts to provide more help have faltered. House Democrats adopted the $3 trillion HEROES Act in May, which went nowhere with Senate Republicans, who instead proposed a $500 billion relief bill that also failed.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin were negotiating a package ranging from $1.4 trillion to $1.8 trillion earlier in the fall that fell apart before the election, which shook up the dynamics of deal-making in Congress.

Trump lost to Democrat Joe Biden by more than 6 million popular votes, although the president has not conceded, and Democrats lost 14 seats in the House, with their last hope of controlling the Senate resting on two runoff races in Georgia next month.

“People wanted Trump out, but they didn’t want Democrats in control,” said Larry Sabato, president of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “If that isn’t clear now, they just haven’t kept up with the election results.”

“This kind of compromise is probably the only thing that can get through,” Sabato said in an interview on Tuesday.

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., called the proposed framework “promising” during a press briefing on Tuesday, but acknowledged, “I wished the package was larger.”

“The bottom line is we’ve got to get a deal through the Democratic House and the Republican Senate, and that means everybody’s got to give,” Kaine said.

Rep. Donald McEachin, D-4th, said he would reserve judgment until he digests the details of the proposed framework, but he warned that he “won’t support it” if it includes immunity for businesses from liability related to COVID-19, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has insisted upon.

The proposed framework would suspend liability litigation over COVID-19 precautions for several months, which Romney said would give states “enough time to put in place their own protections.”

$160B for governments

The package also would provide $160 billion to state, local and tribal governments, which Senate Republicans previously have opposed. The CARES Act, passed in March, included $150 billion for state and local governments — about $1.5 billion in Virginia — but imposed tight controls on how they could spend it. The CARES Act also set a deadline of Dec. 30 that state and local governments say will prevent them from using the money to pay for distribution of vaccines that won’t be widely available until next year.

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring joined almost 50 attorneys general from other states and U.S. territories in a letter to congressional leaders on Monday that asked them to extend the deadline for spending CARES Act funding through the end of next year.

The package unveiled on Tuesday also would depend on about $560 million in money “repurposed” from the CARES Act and $348 million in new spending.

Spending priorities include:

  • health care providers ($35 billion);
  • distribution of vaccines, testing and contact tracing for COVID-19 ($16 billion);
  • rental and housing assistance ($25 billion);
  • food and agricultural supports ($26 billion);
  • child care ($10 billion);
  • expanded broadband telecommunications ($10 billion); and
  • money for the U.S. Postal Service, student loans and programs for treating people with opioid addiction.

“This is not a large stimulus package,” Spanberger said. “In fact, it’s clear we need to do more in the future.”

But she and other congressional supporters say Americans can’t wait for a bigger or better deal as Biden prepares to take office next month.

“We’re hearing from members across the spectrum that they want to get something done before we go home” for the Christmas holiday, said Rep. Josh Gottheimer, a New Jersey Democrat and co-chairman of the Problem Solvers Caucus.

Sabato, at UVA, said the public has reached the limit of its patience.

“People are furious,” he said. “They are furious that politicians across the spectrum can’t get together and help people. They’re desperate.”

“It’s time to move.”

 

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