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East front of the House side of the U.S. Capitol March 18, 2019 (Humberto Sanchez/The Nevada Independent)

The Senate approved five of President Donald Trump’s nominations last week, including James Trainor to join the Federal Election Commission and Rep. John Ratcliffe to become director of national intelligence.

The votes came as senators participated in hearings, including Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto who received assurances from a Department of Energy official that building a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain remains off the table for the president.  

Concerned about large gatherings that could help spread the coronavirus, Speaker Nancy Pelosi canceled last week’s House session. The House will meet next week to vote on a measure to ease restrictions on the Small Business Administrations Paycheck Protect Program, including extending the eight-week window in which loans must be spent to qualify for loan forgiveness and allow a larger share of funds to be used for non-payroll expenses. 

The absence of members of the House has been a point of contention as Democrats and Republicans engaged in a war of words over the makeup and timing of the next coronavirus relief package. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was critical last week of the House for being out, while the Senate has taken votes and held hearings. He also mocked a $3 trillion relief package the House passed recently as a “messaging bill.” McConnell has called for a pause to see how appropriated funds from the first four bills are being spent before proceeding to the next package.

“It’s not just their physical absence,” McConnell said on the Senate floor Thursday. “It’s House Democrats’ absence from any serious discussions at all. About the only product to emerge from their lengthy sabbatical has been an 1,800-page, $3 trillion messaging bill that couldn’t even unite their own conference.”

McConnell told House Republicans last week that the next package would not include the additional $600 a week in unemployment insurance established in the last measure and he reiterated that he will demand that it include liability protection for businesses. Democrats extended the unemployment insurance benefits in their House-passed bill until January 2021. Under current law, the additional $600 a week payment is set to expire at the end of July. McConnell also last week told the president that the next package must cost less than $1 trillion.

Senate Democrats, led by Sen. Chuck Schumer, argued that all McConnell did was hold votes on Trump’s nominations instead of acting now to aid Americans suffering as a result of the pandemic.

“Leader McConnell has long presided over a legislative graveyard,” Schumer said Thursday. “But in this time of national crisis, when Americans all across the country are desperate for relief, the inaction of Senate Republicans is staggering.”

Nominations

Cortez Masto and Sen. Jacky Rosen supported three of the five nominations last week but voted against the nominations of Trainor and Ratcliffe.

A Texas election lawyer who was an adviser to Trump's 2016 campaign, Trainor was confirmed on a party-line 49 to 43 vote. 

He was opposed by Democrats in part because FEC nominations have typically been nominated in pairs, with a nominee from each party. 

Democrats also raised concerns about Trainor’s view on enforcing campaign finance laws. Cortez Masto pointed to a Senate Rules Committee hearing earlier in May when she questioned Trainor. 

“During his nomination hearing in the Senate Rules Committee, Mr. Trainor gave Senator Cortez Masto numerous conflicting answers about his resume and involvement in the 2002 Texas redistricting efforts,” said Lauren Wodarski, Cortez Masto’s spokeswoman. “Mr. Trainor has a concerning track record of opposing campaign finance regulations, supporting voter suppression efforts and dismissing key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, all of which should disqualify him from serving on the Federal Election Commission.” 

Rosen’s office said she voted against Trainor’s nomination “because of his long history of opposing bipartisan campaign finance reform measures and supporting partisan redistricting efforts.”

Trainor’s confirmation finally gives the agency a quorum. The FEC, which needs four members to conduct business, has only had three members since late August when Matthew Petersen resigned from his post. 

While Senate Democrats have expressed a desire for a Senate-confirmed DNI to be in the post and they allowed Ratcliffe’s nomination to be expedited, they voted against Ratcliffe over a lack of intelligence experience and concerns about his independence from the president.

“While the Senator [Cortez Masto] recognizes the importance of having a Senate-confirmed Director of National Intelligence, she is concerned that Representative Ratcliffe lacks the experience necessary for the job and that his close ties to President Trump would hinder his ability to serve the Intelligence Community in a fair, non-partisan manner,” Wodarski, said.

Rosen’s office said that “The Senator voted against Mr. Ratcliffe’s nomination because she did not believe he was at all qualified for a position overseeing our entire intelligence apparatus.”

At his confirmation hearing earlier in May, Ratcliffe pushed back on that notion and pledged that he would be independent of the president and under. 

The post is currently held by acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell. Questions about Grenell’s independence have surfaced in part because, at the behest of two Republican senators, he declassified the names of officials in President Barack Obama’s administration who sought the identity of Trump’s then-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn whose conversations with the Russian officials were uncovered in foreign intelligence surveillance.

Yucca and other hearings

At a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on the nomination of Mark Menezes, to be the number two official at the Department of Energy, Cortez Masto pressed him on the administration’s position on Yucca.

“Let me be very clear about this,” Menezes told the Nevada Democrat. “The President has been very clear on this, the administration will not be pursuing Yucca Mountain as a solution for nuclear waste and I am fully supportive of the president’s decision.” 

The exchange came after a comment to the contrary that Menezes, who currently serves as undersecretary of energy at DOE, made in February to the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Energy Subcommittee. 

At that House hearing, Menezes was asked about the fiscal 2021 budget, which, in a departure from other of the president’s budgets, provided no funds for Yucca and called for exploring alternatives to the Nevada project. When pressed on the issue, by a California Democratic Rep. Jerry McNerney, a supporter of the project, Menezes said “What we're trying to do  is to put together a process that will give us a path to permanent storage at yucca.”

Menezes did not say when asked by Cortez Mast if Yucca Mountain would be a site for temporary storage, which is an option the White House envisions as an alternative to a permanent site at Yucca. 

“The solution for nuclear storage will rest with Congress, and we do pledge to work with you as you develop the legislation,” Menezes said. “We will provide the technical assistance as necessary and we will certainly be able to work together to accommodate all stakeholders.”

Cortez Masto also attended a Senate Banking Committee hearing where she questioned Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell on reopening the economy and the need for the public to feel safe before patronizing travel and leisure industries that are the backbone of Nevada’s economy.

“I think sectors of the economy like that where the business model is to gather people in one place and entertain them, feed them, fly them around whatever you're going to do, those are sectors where it will take some time for the public to return,” Powell said. “That'll happen but it'll take some time for the public to regain confidence and adapt to the new world and start traveling, taking vacations, going to restaurants.”

Cortez Masto said that that confidence will come from state and local governments reopening smartly and having the funding to provide essential services like police and fire fighting. 

“That's why funding for our state and local governments is so important,” Cortez Masto said, adding that that funding should be part of the next relief package.

She also called on the Fed to open its municipal lending facility to smaller local governments.

“I would like to see more of that available to smaller populated states and local governments,” Cortez Masto said. “There has to be a way to also give them the opportunity to get the liquidity or the funds that they need to ensure that they're providing that safety social state to consumers.”

Under current rules, the program, designed to help state and local governments manage cash flow pressures, authorizes the purchase of up to $500 billion of short term notes directly from states, counties with a population of at least 500,000 residents and cities with a population of at least 250,000 residents. Eligible state-level issuers may use the proceeds to support additional counties and cities.

Rosen took part in a hearing held by the Senate Aging Committee where she talked about a bill she helped introduce with Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio that would direct the National Institutes of Health to conduct a nationwide study of the health outcomes and symptoms of COVID-19, including long-term impact on lung function and immune response, and the impact of treatments. The findings would be released publicly every 3 months for the first two years and then every 6 months thereafter.

Miscellany 

With the recent signing of a new executive order giving agencies powers to cut regulations to speed economic recovery from the pandemic, the American Gaming Association called on the administration to raise the limit on slot jackpots that require reporting to the Internal Revenue Service.

“As the gaming industry safely reopens and seeks to return to financial health, one critical area of regulatory reform the administration should consider is modernizing the $1,200 slot jackpot reporting threshold, which has been in place since 1977,” said AGA president Bill Miller. “The current threshold is outdated and imposes significant compliance burdens on both the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the gaming industry.”

Under existing rules, when a casino patron wins a slot machine jackpot of $1,200 or more, the machine is temporarily taken out of operation while the patron is required to complete a W-2G tax reporting form. Inflation has seen jackpots rise and a $1,200 jackpot is common.

A $1,200 jackpot in 1977 would be equivalent to more than $5,000 today if adjusted for inflation, according to the AGA. 

And “because the threshold hasn’t tracked with inflation, there has been a significant increase in the number of reportable jackpots, causing more operational inefficiencies and adding to the sea of W-2G forms currently flooding an under-budgeted and understaffed IRS each year,” the AGA 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.B. 3754 A bill to amend the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 to make a technical correction to the water rights settlement for the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes of the Duck Valley Reservation, and for other purposes.

Legislation co-sponsored:

S.B. 3768 A bill to protect older adults and people with disabilities living in nursing homes, intermediate care facilities, and psychiatric hospitals from COVID-19.

SEN. JACKY ROSEN

Legislation co-sponsored:

S.B. 3768 A bill to protect older adults and people with disabilities living in nursing homes, intermediate care facilities, and psychiatric hospitals from COVID-19.

REP. STEVEN HORSFORD

Legislation co-sponsored:

H.R. 6918 To direct the Secretary of the Treasury to establish a grant program for employers adversely affected by COVID-19, and for other purposes.

 

Disclosure: The Nevada Independent has received a PPP loan.

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