Negotiations on the fifth pandemic aid package resumed last week and appeared to be picking up steam with House Democrats and White House officials closing the gap on the differences over the spending level.
It remains an open question whether Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin can agree to a bill before the November election, but the parties have agreed to keep talking next week, which cast a shred of optimism on the talks, which broke down in late August.
Those talks came as the Senate approved a short-term spending bill, known as a continuing resolution (CR), last week that will keep the government funded through Dec. 11 and avoiding a politically costly shutdown fight just before the election. The House passed the CR the week before last. The fiscal year ended Wednesday night and President Donald Trump signed the measure after midnight, but with no funding interruption, upon returning from campaigning in Minnesota.
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto praised passage of the CR, which included $8 billion for nutrition programs, a provision to continue flexibility for states to lower administrative requirements on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and an extension of the Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT) program through the end of the year. Under P-EBT, children who are eligible for free or reduced-price meals get extra food benefits, up to $296 per child in Nevada, to help while schools are closed.
“This legislation includes a key priority of mine, ensuring that local school districts in Nevada, and across the country, have the necessary flexibility to provide free school lunches to any child in Nevada who needs it,” Cortez Masto said in a release.
Pandemic aid talks also came as Senate Republicans led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky continued pushing the Senate toward the confirmation of President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, as soon as possible, likely early next month, a few days before the election.
With little to no chance of stopping her confirmation, Senate Democrats, including Cortez Masto and Sen. Jacky Rosen, sought to make the fight over health care and their concern that Barrett will rule against the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in a case set to be heard by the court a week after the election.
The House approved a new version of the HEROES Act, the Democrats’ latest offer in talks with the White House, Thursday evening on a 214 to 207 vote. Passage of the bill was symbolic with no chance that the GOP-run Senate would take it up.
No Republican voted for the package and 18 Democrats, including Rep. Steven Horsford, opposed the package. Both Rep. Dina Tutus and Rep. Susie Lee voted for the bill.
Horsford said he opposed the package because it won’t become law, and he said he is looking forward to seeing if a bipartisan deal can be reached. The bill also did not include Horsford’s proposal to have the federal government cover COBRA premiums for workers who lose their jobs because of the pandemic or cover the full cost of health insurance premiums owed by workers who are furloughed and not eligible for COBRA.
“That policy is the only thing that would protect the hard-earned benefits for which union members and working families have fought and sacrificed,” in a statement from his office. “I am hopeful that as negotiations continue between the House, Senate and White House, that we put the interests of workers and their healthcare at the top of our priority list.”
GOP Rep. Mark Amodei also said that symbolism does not help constituents. He also said the bill contains too many extraneous provisions, including allowing the undocumented to receive assistance and requiring at least 15 consecutive days of early voting for federal elections beginning next month.
“At the end of the day, I have a responsibility to vote in the best interests of the people of CD-2,” Amodei said in a statement from his office. “I voted against this legislation, because we should be focused on getting America back on track.”
He also touted a $1.5 trillion bill that he and Lee helped introduce as part of a bipartisan centrist group known as the Problem Solvers Caucus that helped revive the talks.
The re-written Demcoratic measure dropped the price tag to $2.2 trillion by scaling back the length of time the bill would provide funding. That’s down from the original $3.4 trillion HEROES Act.
It was from that $2.2 trillion package that Pelosi last week haggled with Mnuchin and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows who offered a $1.6 trillion plan, which is $100 million more than where they were before talks broke down in August.
“Our negotiations with the Administration continue, and I am hopeful that we can reach agreement,” she said in a letter Friday to House Democrats.
In the letter, she also detailed the sticking points that remain in the talks: How much to provide state and local governments, a priority for Democrats, who included $436 billion in their bill to provide one year’s worth of assistance to state and local governments. That is down from $1 trillion in the initial proposal. The White House has proposed $250 billion for states and localities.
Another hurdle is how much additional funding to provide to those receiving unemployment insurance benefits. House Democrats would restore a $600 a week bonus payment through January. The White House would provide $400 a week until the end of the year.
Areas of agreement include providing another round of $1,200 checks for individuals and $75 billion for coronavirus testing and broadening eligibility for the employee retention tax credit.
The House left for the week without extending the Payroll Support Program (PSP), which was created in the CARES Act, to prevent layoffs of airline industry workers. PSP expired Thursday and as a result, several airlines have announced thousands of layoffs. American Airlines said it would furlough 19,000 workers.
Pelosi said that the House would act next week on a bipartisan deal or standalone measure.
The House bill would provide $25 billion to passenger airlines, $3 billion to airline contractors, and $300 million to cargo airlines, to be used for the sole purpose of paying workers and keeping them employed. The provision is similar to what the delegation asked for in a recent letter to House and Senate leaders.
Meanwhile, Senate Republicans continued their steady march towards confirming Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. Barrett has begun the process of meeting with Senate Republicans.
In response, Senate Democrats, including Cortez Masto and Rosen, have sounded the alarm that Barrett will be the decisive vote against the ACA in the case brought by a group of Republican attorneys general and supported by the Trump administration that contends that the ACA is unconstitutional.
In a press call with reporters convened by the liberal Center for American Progress on Thursday, Cortez Masto said Barrett’s nomination is the latest in a series of efforts to repeal the ACA, which is needed now more than ever to help people who have lost their jobs and health insurance get treatment during the coronavirus pandemic.
“It is so important for Americans to continue to have access to essential health services and health care,” Cortez Masto said. “And that's why this is such a tragedy on the part of President Trump and the Republicans who, for whatever reason, still think it is the right thing to do to take away health care for millions of Americans without any thought about what they're going to do to replace it.”
Rosen made a similar point after voting for a Democratic bill on the Senate floor Thursday that would block the Justice Department from arguing in court to invalidate the ACA.
“Today, I joined my colleagues in a vote to defend the ACA against the Administration's lawsuit to dismantle it,” Rosen wrote on Twitter.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York employed a rarely-used procedural move to schedule a vote on whether to take up the bill. The measure received 51 votes, including Rosen and Cortez Masto, but fewer than the 60 needed to advance. Five Republicans, including four in tough re-election races, joined with Democrats.
In an effort to give his members a Republican alternative, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky scheduled a vote a day earlier on a narrower GOP-drafted bill that would continue some ACA protections for those with pre-existing conditions even if the ACA were repealed. That bill failed 47 to 47 with Rosen and Cortez Masto opposing the measure.
The votes come after the Los Angeles Times reported that Barrett ruled in favor of the law in a mock trial of the case a week before the death of Ginsburg.
Both Cortez Masto and Rosen will oppose Barrett’s nomination, but Rosen last week said she would not turn down an opportunity to meet with her face to face to talk about the need to preserve the ACA.
But that doesn't seem likely given that Rosen will oppose Barrett and the judge would be confirmed so long as she receives at least 50 of the 53 GOP-controlled votes, which would require Vice President Mike Pence to cast the tie-breaking vote.
Last week members of the delegation marked the third anniversary of the Route 91 Harvest festival shooting.
In a video, Rep. Dina Titus, whose district includes the site of the tragedy, praised the outpouring of support, those that saved lives and comforted survivors.
“Today we pray for those who are gone and those who remain, for those who protect us, and those who care for us, for those struggling to survive, and those seeking answers to the question why,” Titius said.
Fifty-eight people lost their lives that day and more than 850 people were injured after the gunman shot more than 1,100 rounds from a 32nd-floor window of Mandalay Bay into the crowd. It was the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
Titus also called for Congress to tackle the issue of gun violence.
Rosen, in her tribute on the Senate floor, called for passage of the Bipartisan Background Checks Act, which passed the House in February 2019 and would require universal background checks for gun purchases.
“Our nation currently faces many challenges, however, my colleagues must recognize the threat that gun violence poses to our communities,” Rosen said.
In her floor speech, Cortez Masto said the moment is always with survivors and comes flooding back with something as innocuous as a car backfiring.
“That is one of the reasons I’m so committed to getting more funding and support for mental health and substance use treatment in this country,” she 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
S. 4790 – A bill to improve the ability of separating or retiring members of the Armed Forces to seek services provided by accredited veterans service officers, and for other purposes.
SEN. JACKY ROSEN
S. 4795 – A bill to require the Secretary of Energy to establish a voluntary Cyber Sense program to test the cybersecurity of products and technologies intended for use in the bulk-power system, and for other purposes.
S. 4740 – A bill to support public health infrastructure.
REP. DINA TITUS
H.R. 8480 – To authorize the position of Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Travel and Tourism, to statutorily establish the United States Travel and Tourism Advisory Board, and for other purposes.