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Capitol dome pictured from the eastern front of the U.S. Capitol on April 1, 2019. (Humberto Sanchez/The Nevada Independent)

Congress gave itself another week to try to craft a pandemic aid package as negotiators remain at odds over Democrats’ desire for providing funds to state and local governments and a Republican push for inclusion of a liability shield for businesses. 

The House and Senate last week approved a second short-term spending bill to keep the government funded through Dec. 18 and avoid a shutdown. The current stopgap, known as a continuing resolution, or CR, expired midnight Friday.

The talks come as the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation (DETR) braced for the potential cut-off of federal funds for unemployment insurance benefits, including Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), which expires on Dec. 26. 

“DETR is anxiously waiting to hear from Congress on whether they may extend the PUA program. DETR is hoping that they do,” the agency said last week. “As soon as Congress acts, DETR will update claimants as to next steps.”

About 90,000 Nevada workers participate in the PUA program, which helps the self-employed and gig workers who are not entitled to unemployment assistance.

The talks also come as Gov. Steve Sisolak looks to make up a projected $400 million budget shortfall over the next two years compared with the current two-year budget cycle. Nevada is also facing a resurgence of infections. The state now has the highest number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 per capita of any state, and 1 in 17 Nevadans has tested positive for the virus since the beginning of the pandemic.

COVID aid

At a press conference Thursday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Congress could conceivably act after Dec. 26, making the aid retroactive to ensure people are made whole for any payments due after benefits expire. But she prefers a deal by the end of next week.

“So some time before then [Dec. 26), hopefully that Dec. 18 date, we would like to have this done,” Pelosi told reporters. 

There is a chance that Congress could be in Christmas week. Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri and independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont have threatened to gum up the works next week unless they get a vote on an amendment to provide another $1,200 direct payment as part of the COVID aid measure, if a deal is struck. Sanders said Friday he was confident he would get his vote. “The alternative is we're going to spend Christmas here, so I'm fairly comfortable," he told reporters.

The emerging plan is to combine a COVID deal with the end-of-year spending package, known as the omnibus. That must-pass appropriations bill is being worked on separately from COVID aid discussions. The newly enacted CR gives lawmakers more time to finish work on the omnibus, which combines all 12 of the federal annual spending bills into one package. But the extra week to work on the omnibus also keeps Congress in session to continue COVID aid talks. 

Pelosi noted the aid package is being negotiated by leaders of the House Problem Solvers Caucus and some Senate Republicans. 

Rep. Susie Lee, a Democrat, and Rep. Mark Amodei, a Republican, are members of that group of moderates, which has twice championed a bipartisan aid package that helped revitalize momentum for getting a COVID aid deal done. 

Lee gave a speech on the House floor last week beseeching lawmakers to act. She cited some of the difficulties in Nevada, including concern over a possible surge of more than 400,000 evictions beginning next year when a federal moratorium expires.

“There’s no time for the political games that have consumed Congress for months,” Lee said. "There never was. I’m pleading to my Republican and Democratic colleagues, to our leadership, and to this administration: it’s time to do our jobs and pass more COVID-19 relief now.” 

The bipartisan negotiators are working from a $908 billion proposal that would provide $180 billion for additional unemployment assistance, including $300 a week through March, $288 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program for loans to small businesses and $45 billion for airlines and other transportation industries. 

The group’s initial proposal included $160 billion for state and local governments, a Democratic priority, and a temporary shield from liability laws, a Republican must-have, to allow states to develop their own liability laws. 

But it’s unclear what will end up in the final deal if there is one. Republicans have rejected the idea of a temporary liability shield. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell last week proposed dropping both provisions, but Pelosi would not go along with that.

The Problem Solvers negotiators indicated that they had an agreement in principle to provide $160 billion for states and localities and an agreement in principle on a liability shield, but provided no details. 

Doubts have been growing over whether those can be agreed to in the next week. Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the Senate majority whip, said that he doesn’t expect a liability agreement that would satisfy enough Republicans. He predicted that a deal would only consist of what has broad agreement on both sides. 

“I don't think they're going to get there on that,” Thune said of liability protection Friday. “Just looking at what's realistic. What can get done. And there are a whole series of things that there's broad agreement on, and my view is we ought to move those add them onto the appropriations bill and then litigate those other issues another time.”

The White House released a $916 billion COVID aid proposal last week. But Democrats dismissed it in favor of efforts by the bipartisan group. 

Democrats—including Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who is helping negotiate the bipartisan package—took issue with the White House plan because it did not include the $300-per-week supplementary unemployment payment through March that was part of the bipartisan proposal. Instead, the White House offered a one-time $600 direct payment. 

“How can anybody say that I'm going to send another check to people that already have a paycheck and job, and not send anything to the unemployed?” Manchin told reporters. “That doesn't make any sense to me at all.”

NDAA

The House approved the National Defense Authorization Act on a 335 to 78 vote, a veto-proof margin. The Senate also approved the measure on a veto-proof majority, 84 to 13. 

The vote tally sets up a possible showdown between President Donald Trump and Congress over the annual defense policy bill. Trump last week threatened to veto the bill, which Congress has managed to enact each year for 59 years.

Both the House and Senate would need to vote again on the bill, as soon as next week, by a two-thirds majority to override a presidential veto.

In its veto threat, the White House said it objected to language that would change the names of installations and monuments memorializing the Confederacy. The White House also noted that the bill did not include language repealing legal protections against liability 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.

The $731 billion bill includes a 3 percent pay raise for active military personnel as well as language keeping 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 sought to expand those live-fire facilities, but their efforts have been put off for at least another year once the NDAA becomes law. 

The bill also would establish Intergovernmental Executive Committees at both the NTTR and Fallon to give local, state and tribal governments input in the management of natural and cultural resources within local lands used for military purposes.

Members of the delegation celebrated the provisions keeping the Air Force and Navy facilities the same size for the time being.

“This bill balances the needs of our national security while also preserving the environment and wildlife that Nevada cherishes,” said Democratic Rep. Steven Horsford in a release.

Horsford, whose district includes the NTTR, was on the panel that worked out the compromise between the House and Senate-passed versions of the bill. He also helped block a proposal this summer to give the Air Force more control over about 840,000 acres of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge, which could have led to an expansion of the NTTR. 

The bill also included legislation introduced by Lee that would extend the temporary health care coverage provided to babies born to veterans to 14 days from seven.  

Rep. Dina Titus praised the fact that the final bill dropped $10 million in funding for nuclear testing included in the Senate-passed NDAA by GOP Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas. The House version included a prohibition on spending for nuclear tests included by Titus, but that language was also dropped from the compromise. 

Sen. Jacky Rosen lauded the compromise bill for including five pieces of legislation she sponsored. One measure she introduced added to the final NDAA would authorize the Pentagon to fund a grant program for Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC) for training and education in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

There are 35 high schools in Nevada with JROTC programs, with over 3,000 student members, according to Rosen’s office.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto also highlighted several NDAA provisions she backed, including language that directs a study on Chinese government influence over the international standards-setting process for emerging technologies. She introduced similar legislation last month.

Miscellany

Both Cortez Masto and Rosen voted Wednesday in support of two resolutions that would have blocked the White House from selling $23 billion in arms, including stealth technology, to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The deal comes after the UAE normalized relations with Israel. The U.S. organized those talks.

“This arms sale would give some of America’s newest technology away without sufficient review of the consequences,” Cortez Masto said in a release. "The outgoing Administration has not followed the proper process for arms sales review with this package, nor has it provided Congress with a timely opportunity to evaluate the details of this sale.” 

The $23 billion deal includes up to 50 F-35 jets and up to 18 Reaper drones. One resolution focused on the jets, which failed 47 to 49. The other, on the drones, went down on a 46 to 50 vote. Most Democrats supported the resolutions, while most Republicans opposed it.

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. 4981 – A bill to support research on privacy enhancing technologies and promote responsible data use, and for other purposes.

S. 4969 – A bill to authorize funds to prevent housing discrimination through the use of nationwide testing, to increase funds for the Fair Housing Initiatives Program, and for other purposes.

S. 4968 – A bill to provide increased oversight of certain pardons, to clarify the applicability of bribery prohibitions to pardons and commutations, and for other purposes.

Legislation co-sponsored:

S. 4984 – A bill to report data on COVID-19 immigration detention facilities and local correctional facilities that contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and for other purposes.

SEN. JACKY ROSEN

Legislation sponsored:

S. 4984 – A bill to report data on COVID-19 immigration detention facilities and local correctional facilities that contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and for other purposes.

S. 4972 – A bill to direct the Director of the National Science Foundation to support STEM education and workforce development research focused on rural areas, and for other purposes.

S. 4968 – A bill to provide increased oversight of certain pardons, to clarify the applicability of bribery prohibitions to pardons and commutations, and for other purposes.

REP. DINA TITUS

Legislation co-sponsored:

H.R. 8912 – To amend the State Department Basic Authorities Act of 1956 to establish in the Department of State a Chief Diversity Officer and the Foreign Service Act of 1980 to promote increased diversity in the Foreign Service, and for other purposes.

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