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

The Department of Energy (DOE) would be barred from funding new nuclear tests and sending plutonium to Nevada from South Carolina under a $1.3 trillion package of six appropriations bills approved by the House last week.

House votes on the spending package came as the Senate approved four executive branch nominations last week, including re-confirming the only Democrat on the National Labor Relations Board, Lauren McFerran, whose term expired in December. Both Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and Sen. Jacky Rosen voted for McFerran.

Pandemic aid bill

Much of the focus last week was on talks between House and Senate Democratic leaders and the White House on the next pandemic relief package. 

Senate Republicans, led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, unveiled a $1 trillion proposal meant to be the GOP starting point for negotiations with the Democrats. 

Titled the Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection and Schools, or HEALS, Act, the bill got mixed reactions from rank and file Republicans. Sen. Lindsey Graham said that he expects no more than half of Senate Republicans to support another relief bill, and President Donald Trump called it “semi-irrelevant” because the bill will likely change in negotiations.  

Rep. Mark Amodei, the delegation’s lone Republican, believes there needs to be more federal aid, but he was pleased that the Senate GOP’s bill would reduce the $600 a week bonus for people collecting unemployment insurance provided in the last aid package, the $3 trillion CARES Act.

“There are some things in there that, quite frankly, I think are pretty important,” Amodei said of the Senate GOP proposal, also saying that workers in hospitality-industry-heavy Nevada are incentivized not to go back to work because they earn more from unemployment insurance benefits than from their jobs. 

“It makes it real tough for many in industries that are key for funding the state to find employees,” Amodei continued. 

Under the Senate proposal, workers would receive a $200 weekly payment until October when the $200 payment would be replaced with a payment that, when combined with state unemployment insurance, would replace 70 percent of their pre-pandemic weekly wage — and the federal contribution would be capped to no more than $500 a week. 

How to handle the unemployment insurance issue is shaping up to be one of the more difficult elements of the talks with Democrats who are pushing to extend the $600 weekly payment through the end of the year. They included that in the package, known as the HEROES Act, that they passed out of the Democratic-run House in May and backed by all of the state’s Democratic House members.

Rosen, in a speech on the Senate floor Thursday when she called for Congress to stay in session over the weekend, said the bill “slashes federal unemployment assistance for people who are out of work not due to any fault of their own.”  

But the two parties remain far apart. Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters Thursday evening after a meeting with Meadows and Mnuchin that they “discussed parameters” of the bill rather than specifics.

“I think they understand that we have to have a bill, but they just don’t realize how big it has to be,” she said.  

The debate comes as economic data released Thursday showed that the gross domestic product (GDP), the broadest measure of the economy, shrank by 9.5 percent from April through June compared with the same period last year. Reported on an annualized basis by the Bureaus of Economic Analysis, the 32.9 percent decline was the steepest contraction since the 10 percent drop reported in 1958. (The government only started to keep track of GDP after World War II.)

Other differences between the two bills include whether to provide COVID-19 liability protection for employers and aid to state and local governments. 

The GOP bill includes language that would make it more difficult to sue businesses, schools and hospitals over virus-related damages for five years. Plaintiffs would have to prove gross negligence and that there was an infraction of state and local health rules. Democrats have no liability protection language in their bill.

In the Democratic proposal, state and local governments would receive $1 trillion in aid and stimulus. The Senate Republican package removed restrictions on uses for $150 billion provided in the CARES Act. 

One area of agreement: both the House and Senate measures would provide another $1,200 direct cash payment. 

Appropriations

The House approved the spending package on a 217 to 197 vote and would provide $41 billion for the DOE, an increase of $2.3 billion above the existing level and $5.1 billion more than the president’s budget request. The package also funded the Departments of Defense (DOD),  

Transportation (DOT), Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Health and Human Services (HHS), Justice (DOJ) and Treasury.

All of Nevada’s House Democrats voted for the measure and Amodei joined with his GOP colleagues, who all opposed it.

The Nevada Republican said the bills reflect the hyper-partisan atmosphere, driven, in part, by the election being a few months away in November. He believes that’s driving Democrats to try to score political points against Trump with the spending measures.  

“I find it incredible that Congress, while the majority party's person is in the White House, this is all great stuff. And when they're not, then the executive branch should have no authority,” Amodei said.

He cited examples in the DOD spending bill that would seek to tie the hands of the president, including a prohibition on the use of funds for the president’s border wall. 

The DOD measure would provide the military with $694.6 billion, which would be a $1.3 billion increase over fiscal year 2020 and $3.7 billion less than the president’s budget request. The measure included $1 million for the Army for the renaming of installations, facilities, roads and streets that bear the name of confederate leaders and officers. 

These funds will support military facilities in Nevada, including Nellis and Creech Air Force Bases, the Nevada Test and Training Range and the Hawthorne Army Depot. 

Amodei said he hopes that a better package will emerge from negotiations between House Democrats and the GOP-led Senate, likely after the election.

The House included Rep. Steven Horsford’s amendment, adopted by voice vote with a raft of other changes, that would repeal an executive order requiring the sharing of federal citizenship data with the Commerce Department. Horsford introduced the provision as a standalone bill last month.

The prohibition on nuclear testing in the DOE’s budget was identical to legislation introduced by Rep. Dina Titus in June. 

“Today the House of Representatives voted to prevent the President from needlessly conducting an explosive nuclear weapons test,” Titus said in a release after the vote. “I did not introduce this ban lightly, but it was necessary to prevent President Trump from recklessly threatening Nevadans’ health and potentially restarting a global arms race.”

Renewing nuclear testing became an issue after a Washington Post article in May reported Trump had discussed the possibility of resuming testing with White House officials as a way to pressure Russia and China to agree to trilateral nuclear arms talks. 

Similar testing prohibition language, backed by Titus, Horsford and Rep. Susie Lee, was included in the annual defense policy bill, known as the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) approved by the House recently. 

The ban on shipping South Carolina’s plutonium to the Silver State comes after DOE disclosed in early 2019 as part of a lawsuit filed by Nevada to prevent any plutonium shipment—after talks with DOE yielded no resolution—that it had already shipped a half metric ton of plutonium to Nevada from the Savannah River Site.

Gov. Steve Sisolak announced in June that the state settled its suit with the DOE regarding the South Carolina plutonium. The settlement would require the agency to begin removing the plutonium by next year and to fully remove it by 2026, similar to the DOE agreement struck by Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto in April 2019.

Miscellany

Meanwhile, Cortez Masto led the delegation, including Amodei, in a letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue seeking guidance on how to connect low-income families with internet service providers that offer low-cost services without violating the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which protects the privacy of student education records. 

“To access these low-cost programs, internet providers require confirmation that families are currently on federal aid such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Free and Reduced Lunch (FRL) in order to extend these low-cost offers to families,” the letter said. “We have heard from districts that are concerned about confirming which families are utilizing federal aid because they do not want to violate the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).” 

“We are asking you to please provide this clarification as soon as possible,” the letter continued.

Also, Cortez Masto and Rosen last week signed on to a letter with 23 other Senate Democrats calling on the president to grant Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Venezuelans fleeing the humanitarian crisis in their country under President Nicolas Maduro.

“As the people of Venezuela continue to suffer political oppression and economic deprivation at the hands of the Nicolas Maduro regime, they now also face the alarming spread of the COVID-19 pandemic with a public health system in ruins.” the letter said.

Lastly, Nevada’s Democratic congressional lawmakers have been active on social media urging the wearing of masks. Lee joined in on an effort led by Democratic Rep. Susan DelBene of Washington whereby members post pictures of themselves in a pink mask quoting a line from the 2004 movie Mean Girls and using the hashtag #OnWednesdaysWeWearPink. Lee posted a picture of herself on Twitter asking “is COVID a carb?”

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. 4366 – A bill to require the Administrator of the Small Business Administration to encourage entrepreneurship training in after school programs, and for other purposes.

Legislation co-sponsored:

S. 4388 – A bill to address mental health issues for youth, particularly youth of color, and for other purposes.

S. 4380 – A bill to provide redress to the employees of Air America.

S. 4326 – A bill to require the Secretary of the Treasury to honor the 100th anniversary of completion of coinage of the "Morgan Dollar" and the 100th anniversary of commencement of coinage of the "Peace Dollar", and for other purposes.

SEN. JACKY ROSEN

Legislation co-sponsored:

S. 4388 – A bill to address mental health issues for youth, particularly youth of color, and for other purposes.

S. 4380 – A bill to provide redress to the employees of Air America.

S. 4328 – A bill to require the Comptroller General of the United States to conduct a study and report on data quality, sharing, transparency, access, and analysis.

REP. DINA TITUS

Legislation co-sponsored:

H.R. 7798 – To amend the Foreign Service Act of 1980 relating to selection boards regarding performance evaluations of Foreign Service officers, and for other purposes.

REP. STEVEN HORSFORD

Legislation co-sponsored:

H.R. 7830 – To provide continued support for workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, and for other purposes.

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