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The U.S. Capitol Building on April 1, 2017. (Courtesy/Jeff Slinker under Creative Commons)

Odds for Congress to pass a pandemic aid package did not appear to improve after the recent elections as House Democrats and Senate Republicans last week traded jabs over their differing visions for a bill, which remained the same as before the election. 

The public dueling comes as Nevada has seen high unemployment, relative to the rest of the country, because of an order that forced the closure of nonessential businesses earlier this year issued by Gov. Steve Sisolak to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

The state posted the second-worst unemployment rate in the country in September and has received more than 1.3 million initial claims for unemployment benefits during the pandemic alone, out of a workforce that numbers only 1.5 million.

Sisolak has since loosened restrictions, but last week threatened to reimpose prohibitions unless Nevadans—through voluntary mask-wearing, social distancing and otherwise limiting their exposure—can reverse the current spike in coronavirus cases. He did not say exactly what restrictions would be put in place, but he noted they would be “severe.”

COVID-19 cases in Nevada have now climbed to a higher level than they reached during this summer’s peak, with a record 1,959 cases reported in a single day on Nov 7. 

The sparring over the relief package also came as the Senate continued to confirm judges nominated by President Donald Trump, including one that split Nevada’s Democratic senators. The House was not in session last week. 

Pandemic aid

At a news conference Thursday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York told reporters that both parties remain where they were before the election with a fundamental disagreement over how much aid to provide and what programs to spend it on. 

“We're in that same place, even more so with the pandemic because look at these numbers,” Pelosi said, referring to a record more than 144,000 new cases in the nation reported Thursday by Johns Hopkins University’s COVID tracker.

Democrats had proposed a $2.2 trillion package that included funding for state and local governments and an extension of an expired program that paid an additional $600 a week to those collecting unemployment insurance benefits.

Republicans led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, are pushing for a package along the lines of the $500 billion relief bill that was blocked by Democrats before the election for not providing enough aid. That measure included another round of funding for the emergency small business loan program known as the Paycheck Protection Program, schools and a provision shielding businesses from liability associated with the virus.

Pelosi argued that her hand in negotiations is strengthened by the election of President-elect Joe Biden. 

“Whether you’re in the majority or the minority, if the president is of your party, you have more power,” Pelosi said Friday.

Pelosi also contends the surging number of daily COVID-19 cases also will help move Republicans.

“Well, I think that the most compelling argument, what I said earlier, 144,000 people yesterday, and these people are spread all over the country,” Pelosi said Thursday.

The speaker added that more than 100,000 have died of COVID-19 since the House Democrats passed their $3.3. HEROES Act in May, which was never considered by the GOP-run Senate over concerns that it would spend too much money on projects not directly related to the pandemic. 

For example, the most recent $2.2 trillion Democratic proposal, passed in October, included a one-year removal of the $10,000 limit on deducting state and local taxes (SALT) from federal taxes. The SALT cap was imposed by the 2017 tax reform law, pushed through by Republicans and Trump, and hit taxpayers hard in states with high taxes such as New York, New Jersey, and California, which have Democratic governors.

While McConnell believes that an aid package should be passed before the end of the year, he argued that it should be on the smaller side compared to the House proposal. To make that point to reporters last week, he cited recent data that showed the economy added a better-than-expected 638,000 jobs in October and the national unemployment rate fell to 6.9 percent from 7.9 percent in September. 

“My view is the level at which the economy is improving further underscores that we need to do something at about the amount that we put on the floor in September and October,” McConnell said. “Highly targeted at what the residual problems are.” 

“I gather [Pelosi] and the Democratic leader in the Senate still are looking at something dramatically larger,” McConnell continued. “That’s not a place I think we’re willing to go. But I do think there needs to be another package. Hopefully we can get past the impasse we’ve had now for four or five months and get serious about doing something that’s appropriate.”

Members of the delegation, including Rep. Susie Lee, a Democrat, and Rep. Mark Amodei, a Republican, have urged their leaders to take action. 

Amodei told the Dan Mason Show last week that he expects Congress to try to get a deal done, but added that partisanship remains high so an outcome is unclear.

“I would think that's number,” Amodei said of a relief package, adding that it would come during “probably the most polarized time in modern history.” 

Complicating matters is that, while Democrats are guaranteed to retain the control of the House by winning 218 seats so far, 15 races have yet to be decided, according to The New York Times, as ballots continue to be counted. So it’s not certain how large their majority will be next year. 

In the Senate, Republicans will remain in the majority next year if they win one of two runoff elections in Georgia scheduled for Jan. 5. Democrats would need to win both to take over.
 

Appropriations

One area of legislative business where there is possible agreement is on wrapping up the 12 annual spending bills into one omnibus package rather than passing a short-term spending stopgap, which makes planning into the future for federal agencies difficult. 

“I think both sides think it would be better to do an omnibus appropriations bill before the end of the year rather than another short-term punt,” McConnell told reporters Tuesday.

Pelosi said Friday that she was “optimistic” that an omnibus could be passed.

Senate Republicans released their versions of the 12 bills last week. Those must be reconciled with the House versions so that each chamber can pass an identical omnibus that can be signed by the president.  

The Senate measure that included funding for the Department of Energy (DOE) did not include any funding to license the construction of a nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain.

A day before the Senate appropriators released their spending bills, Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen wrote about Yucca to Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the chairman and ranking member of the committee that oversees the DOE’s budget.

“We hope you will continue to respect the voices of Nevadans, the Nevada Congressional Delegation, and the Trump Administration in calling for the nation to move beyond Yucca Mountain and put it to rest by pursuing innovative, alternative nuclear waste disposal solutions,” the letter said

Congressional opponents in Congress, who believe the project is unsafe, have managed to keep it from receiving any federal funds since 2011. Trump requested funds for Yucca in his first three budget blueprints, but in the fiscal 2020 budget, he changed course, and instead declared that the DOE would seek alternatives to Yucca, including exploring establishing a temporary storage program. Under the senate spending bill, the DOE budget includes the $27.5 billion requested by the administration to explore temporary storage. 

On Friday, Cortez Masto helped organize a letter to McConnell urging him to include an 18-month extension in an omnibus or short-term spending package for Temporary Protected Status recipients from El Salvador, Haiti, Sudan, Nicaragua, Nepal, and Honduras.

“More than 130,000 TPS recipients from El Salvador, Honduras, and Haiti are essential workers, serving in positions in the health care, food, transportation, and other sectors that the Department of Homeland Security has labeled ‘needed to maintain the services and functions Americans depend on daily and that need to be able to operate resiliently during the COVID-19 pandemic response,’” the letter said. 

The letter was signed by 28 other Senate Democrats including Rosen. Nevada is home to 6,300 individuals who have Temporary Protected Status from El Salvador, Honduras, and Haiti, which combined have 5,200 U.S.-born children and contribute nearly $270 million to the state economy, according to Cortez Masto’s office. 

Judge

Cortez Masto and Rosen split on the confirmation of James Knepp who was confirmed last to be a U.S. Federal District Court Judge for the Northern District of Ohio.

Rosen said she opposed Knepp’s nomination over a concern regarding immigrant rights.   

“Senator Rosen did not support the nomination of Judge James Knepp because of past rulings he made that undermined legal protections for immigrants,” said Rosen spokesperson Katherine Schneider.

Knepp was pressed on the matter by Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s top Democrat. She voiced concern that, in one case, Knepp did not allow an undocumented man, who had been deported before, to be released from custody while awaiting trial because his unlawful presence in the country would be a violation of the conditions of his bail. 

Feinstein argued that Knepp’s ruling did not square with the Supreme Court ruling in Arizona v. United States, which held that it generally is not a crime for a removable alien to remain in the United States. Knepp responded that his reading of the Supreme Court case was that it did not involve the operative statute at issue in his case.

Knepp was confirmed on a 62 to 24 vote with 13 Democrats, including Cortez Masto backing the nomination. Twenty-four Democrats opposed him. Both Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican and Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, voted for Knepp. 

Miscellany 

Cortez Masto participated in a Banking Committee hearing last week, where she cautioned Brian Brooks, head the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), about an OCC rule related to payday lenders. 

“I would ask that you continue to watch this,” Cortez Masto, a former Nevada attorney general, said of several suits brought by state AGs seeking to crack down on payday lenders that use the rule to get around state limits on interest rates. 

Under the “true lender rule,” third parties, like payday lenders, are allowed to partner with banks to provide small-dollar loans. But one consequence of the rule is that since the banks are often not located in the states where the loan is offered, they are not subject to state interest rate caps. Critics call it a “rent-a-bank” scheme.

Cortez Masto highlighted a suit filed in June by the District of Columbia against online lender Elevate and LoanMart, which is being investigated by California.

She urged Brooks to keep an eye on the issue given that, with the pandemic and high unemployment, people may be more vulnerable to predatory loan schemes.  

“They are going to look for these loans, and there are going to be predators out there and it would be the worst thing to see that your new rule has opened the door for those types of predatory loans,” Cortez Masto said.

Brooks agreed and said the rule allows the OCC to “police this from the banking side.”

Rosen took part in a hearing at the Senate Commerce Committee, where she questioned Nathan Simington, a nominee to a Republican spot on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Rosen asked Simington to support her bill to require the FCC to incorporate data from the Centers for Disease Control into FCC broadband health maps. The idea is to use data mapping to show where high rates of poor maternal health outcomes overlap with lack of access to broadband services to help identify where improved access to telehealth services can be most effective.

“We want to determine where telehealth services are needed the most,” Rosen said.

Simington said that he supports the idea of delivering telehealth more “efficaciously” and, if confirmed, would try “to forward the goal of your legislation.”

Finally, Cortez Masto last week was elected to join the Senate Democrats’ leadership team. She will serve as vice chair of outreach beginning next legislative cycle. She’ll leave her spot as chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which helps elect more Democrats to the Senate, at the end of the year. 

“I’m proud to take on this new leadership role on behalf of Nevadans so that I can continue to advocate for their needs in the Senate,” Cortez Masto said in a release.

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.

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