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East front of the U.S. Capitol on July 13, 2017. (Humberto Sanchez/The Nevada Independent)

After months of on-again, off-again negotiations, Congress is on the cusp of a deal to provide $900 billion in pandemic aid, including about $600 in one-time direct payments to individual taxpayers and an extra $300-a-week to those collecting unemployment insurance benefits through March. 

Negotiators will have through at least until Sunday night to work out a series of last-minute details, like who will be eligible for the $600 direct payment. Sunday is when the latest stopgap spending bill, or continuing resolution (CR) expires. Congress quickly passed, and President Donald Trump signed, the CR Friday night avoiding a government shutdown beginning at midnight and giving lawmakers another 48 hours to wrap up the COVID-aid talks. 

Under the CARES Act, the $2.2 trillion aid package enacted in March, individuals making up to $75,000 a year were eligible for the full $1,200 direct payments provided by that law. Those making more than $75,000 and above would get an increasingly smaller portion of the $1,200. No funds would be provided to those making above $99,000. A debate is underway over whether to change that formula for the $600 payment.

But despite the hurdles, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that they do not intend to break for Christmas until a deal is reached, approved and sent to the president to sign into law. McConnell said Friday that the Senate would continue voting on judicial nominations through the weekend.

The aid would come at a crucial time for Nevada, where efforts to contain the pandemic earlier this year led to a substantial surge in unemployment. According to the Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation (DETR), the state posted a 10.1 percent unemployment rate in November. That was an improvement over the 11.9 percent hit in October, but still much higher than the national unemployment rate last month, which was 6.7 percent. Additionally, tens of thousands of Nevada gig workers and independent contractors are struggling to find work.

All members of the state’s congressional delegation have called for more aid and are poised to support the package if an agreement can be reached.

Rep. Dina Titus said last week that Congress can’t act fast enough for Las Vegas. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Las Vegas-Henderson-Paradise metro area posted a 13.8 percent unemployment rate in October. It was the fourth-highest rate of the 389 metro areas listed. 

“Nearly 1.4 million Americans filed new unemployment claims last week alone,” Titus said on Twitter.  “Las Vegas is suffering from some of the highest unemployment rates in the country. We must pass a relief package now.”

Nascent COVID deal

Pelosi, McConnell and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin took over talks last week to finalize the deal drafted by a group of House and Senate Republicans and Democrats, including members of the Problem Solvers Caucus, which is a House group of moderates made up of 25 Democrats and 25 Republicans. 

GOP Rep. Mark Amodei and Democratic Rep. Susie Lee are members of the group, which helped jumpstart talks earlier this month when they introduced a $908 billion aid package that negotiators are working from. 

Lee said Thursday that she expects more aid, in addition to the end $900 billion package would be needed.

"We need to pass a relief package ASAP, but it definitely can’t be the last,” Lee said on Twitter. “States like Nevada need direct assistance as they face massive budget cuts because of lost revenue during the pandemic. Our schools, hospitals, police departments, and communities need it, desperately.”

Rep. Steven Horsford Wednesday reiterated his call for the deal to include extended unemployment benefits, direct cash payment and funds for state and local governments. 

Along with the direct payments and 16 weeks of bonus unemployment benefits, the package is expected to include about $330 billion in small business relief, including more funds for the Paycheck Protection Program. The bill is also expected to include funding for vaccine distribution, schools, transportation and health care.

Among the 11th-hour sticking points is a Democratic effort to provide funds to the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA). Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware told reporters that FEMA would be a good agency to help respond to the pandemic. 

“I think it's important that we provide relief in places where Americans are hurting,” Coons told reporters. “And one of the things that FEMA has is flexibility in terms of their ability to respond to a disaster. And in lots of states, the pandemic is at disaster level. So, using FEMA as one of the ways to deliver relief that allows communities, the opportunity to get it strikes me as a good choice.”

But Republicans, who have dropped their push for a liability shield for businesses in exchange for Democrats putting aside their push for direct money for states and localities, were worried that this FEMA proposal would amount to another way to funnel money to states. 

GOP Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, said that some of the last-minute talks have been about how to put “guardrails” around the FEMA funding “to make sure that it's not just a slush fund for state and local governments, which would create a lot of problems on our side.”

The issue of “checks is complicated,” Thune said. “I think designing that in a way that maximizes the amount that an individual or family can receive and try and target it to the people who need it the most I think is right now one the biggest challenges. But hopefully they can get that done.”

A debate is also taking place over whether to extend the federal eviction moratorium, which expires at the end of the month. Republican Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, said he wants more funds to provide rental assistance and that would obviate the need to extend the moratorium. 

“The question is whether one is needed if we get an adequate rental assistance program put into place,” Crapo said. “And I personally am negotiating for an effective rental assistance program that would avoid the need for an eviction moratorium.”

Another item being negotiated is the inclusion of the Save Our Stage Act, which would provide about $10 billion in Small Business Administration grants for independent live music venue operators affected by COVID-19 stay-at-home orders. All of the state’s congressional Democrats are co-sponsors of the respective House and Senate versions. 

Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who introduced the bill, said last week that negotiators were still talking about how to distribute the funds and to which businesses.

Cornyn said that the bill has picked up steam and so other senators wanted other venues included, such as zoos and museums, “which I'm not opposed to as long as it doesn't take the money that is so important to these venues that are been crushed by the virus. So we're trying to work out a fair formula. That’s what’s hanging it up,” Cornyn said.

There is also a dispute over whether the package should include language closing many of the Federal Reserve’s emergency loan programs designed to keep credit flowing and steady the financial markets during the pandemic. Crapo, who supports ending the lending facilities, said Congress can always reinstate them if needed. 

“You'll recall that there was $429 billion out of the $500 billion that was not needed for these kinds of facilities, and if the need arises then Congress can put it back in and move forward but it was determined that this $429 billion needs to be reallocated into areas where it can have an impact,” Crapo said.

Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado said the GOP move is designed to hamstring President-elect Joe Biden. 

“I can't believe that at the eleventh hour what seems to be holding up a bipartisan agreement is an ideological effort to remove critical authorities that President Trump has had available to him, just because President-elect Biden is about to take office,” Bennet said in a statement Friday. “These authorities should be maintained to allow for the Federal Reserve to act to prevent hardship to families across the country.”

NDAA

President Trump last week doubled down on his threat to veto the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) over lawmakers' decision not to include language to remove legal protections for tech companies like Facebook with regard to what their users post. Trump has pressed for repeal of what is known as Section 230 for its place in the 1996 Communications Decency Act.

He also, in a tweet Thursday, cited his opposition to the inclusion of a provision in the bill that would lead to the renaming of monuments to Confederate soldiers. And he referenced a provision that would require him to submit a plan for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and Germany before he can tap defense funds to do so.

"I will Veto the Defense Bill, which will make China very unhappy. They love it. Must have Section 230 termination, protect our National Monuments and allow for removal of military from far away, and very unappreciative, lands. Thank you!" Trump said.

While the House and Senate approved the NDAA by veto-proof margins earlier this month, it is unclear whether Republicans will vote to overturn the veto. GOP Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri said, “I would not vote to override – I would vote to sustain the veto,” when asked by reporters Thursday.

Trump has until Dec. 23 to veto the bill or it would become law. If he vetoes the measure, Congress is expected to vote before the January 3 beginning of the next congressional session.

The $730 billion bill includes several provisions for Nevada, including language to keep the existing footprint of the Air Force’s Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR) and the Navy’s Fallon Range Training Complex for 25 years. Both branches of the military had separately pressed to enlarge those facilities.

It also authorized $29 million for military construction projects for Naval Air Station Fallon, $16 million for new military construction projects for the Nevada National Security Site and authorized funds for more MQ-9 Reaper, a remotely piloted aircraft, which are stationed at Creech Air Force Base.

Miscellany

Sen. Jacky Rosen took part in a contentious hearing on election irregularities at the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee last week.

The hearing at one point devolved into a shouting match between GOP Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, the committee chairman, and Democratic Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan, the ranking member, over whether the hearing was needed given that all of Trump’s claims of election fraud have been rejected by courts around the country. 

Rosen used her time to thank Nevada election workers and underscored the fairness of the election in the Silver State. Her comments were spurred by Jesse Binnall, who appeared before the committee and was a Trump campaign lawyer in Nevada, where he sought to overturn the results.

“Nevada’s elections were free, fair and secure,” Rosen said. “Both our Republican secretary of state and our Democratic attorney general have stated there is no evidence that wide-spread voter fraud occurred in Nevada and our highest court has said the same and I will not give this false narrative about my state any more attention than it already unfortunately has received.”

She gave the last two minutes of her allotted five to Christopher Krebs, the former head of the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA). 

Krebs was fired by Trump last month after declaring that the election was the most secure in history.

Krebs used the time to salute his team at CISA, other federal agencies, but mostly election workers. “The real heroes here are the state and local election workers across the country,” Krebs said. “They had to deal with incredible adversity. And then at the end of it, risking their lives, they get death threats for doing their jobs. 

“That has to end,” he said. “We have to come back together as a country.” 

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto helped convene a hearing Wednesday on competing with China. Cortez Masto is the ranking member of the Senate Banking Committee’s Economic Policy Subcommittee. GOP Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas is the chairman. 

At the hearing, Cortez Masto called for investing in U.S. manufacturing and referenced the manufacturing plant in Henderson owned by the Titanium Metal Corp, also known as TIMET, as an example of a company that is in a fight with China. The Henderson facility is the only domestic supplier of titanium sponge, which is a porous form of titanium and has a wide range of defense applications, from helicopter blades and tank armor to fighter jet airframes and engines.

The plant went idle this summer and laid off more than 100 workers due to the coronavirus. But the facility had struggled before that and had petitioned the federal government to impose tariffs on other sponge makers, but was denied. TIMET warned that if it stopped production, there would be a risk to U.S. national security because the nation would be reliant on Chinese and Russian titanium sponge.

Cortez Masto asked what the federal government could do for companies like TIMET to compete. “How do you compete with China, who already has reduced the cost of doing this,” Cortez Masto said.

Melanie Hart, senior fellow and director for China policy at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, said that what is missing from the U.S.’s current trade policy is an analysis of supply chains to determine where the nation’s over-reliance on China exists. 

“That supply-chain-by-supply-chain analysis is critical to target and determine where do those investments make sense and how do we make sure we are getting the biggest economic and national security bang for the buck.”

Derek Scissors, resident scholar at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, agreed. He gave the example of drug manufacturing. While the U.S. doesn’t get finished pharmaceutical products from China, the Chinese manufacture the raw materials that go into many pharmaceuticals. 

“There is a hidden dependence on China in that sector and that requires a different policy than a when the imports come directly from China,” Scissors said. 

For a full rundown of the measures the delegates supported or opposed this week, check out The Nevada Independent’s congressional vote tracker and other information below.

SEN. CATHERINE CORTEZ MASTO

Legislation sponsored:

S. 5055 –  A bill to protect immigrant families, combat fraud, promote citizenship, and build community trust, and for other purposes.

S. 5034 – A bill to empower communities to establish a continuum of care for individuals experiencing mental or behavioral health crisis, and for other purposes.

Legislation co-sponsored:

S. 5041 – A bill to establish the Advisory Committee on Climate Risk on the Financial Stability Oversight Council.

S. 5035 – A bill to amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to provide matching payments for retirement savings contributions by certain individuals.

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