Congressional lawmakers weigh in on priorities, see different paths to economic recovery
The new year will be all about helping Nevada defeat and recover from the coronavirus, the state’s congressional members said in recent interviews that revealed widely differing policies on how to do it.
While there were priority differences along party lines, there also were disagreements that mirror discord between and among Democrats and Republicans nationally.
The state’s five congressional Democrats broke with President-elect Joe Biden, who said the Green New Deal, a resolution establishing climate-change goals introduced by Democratic progressives in 2019, is a "crucial framework” to address climate issues. None of the Nevada Democrats have endorsed the Green New Deal.
Rep. Dina Titus noted that the final version of the Green New Deal does not mention nuclear power, which is of particular interest to Nevada, given its longstanding concerns that the state will be a dumping ground for the country’s nuclear waste. Yucca Mountain was picked in 1987 as the location for a national nuclear waste repository. The project was never licensed and members of the delegation have successfully fought against funding it since 2011.
Biden, on the campaign trail last year, rejected advancing the Yucca project. His climate plan only calls for further research on how to safely dispose of waste.
Nevada’s congressional Democrats also questioned a proposal from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who urged Biden to forgive $50,000 per person in student loan debt. The idea came from Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a progressive stalwart. The Democrats’ responses to the proposal ranged from uncertainty that it would really help to the belief that something closer to $10,000 would be the right amount to forgive. Instead, they said they want to allow individuals to refinance student debt at a lower interest rate.
Like Biden, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and Sen. Jacky Rosen both were unsure of the wisdom of getting rid of the filibuster for legislation. The party’s progressive wing wants to do away with the filibuster, which requires at least 60 votes to advance legislation, because it gives the minority, in a closely divided Senate, the ability to block almost all legislation. If it remains in place, Republicans will have the ability to stifle Biden’s agenda even if Democrats win back the majority by defeating both GOP candidates in the Senate runoff races in Georgia on Jan. 5.
The two also dismissed the idea of expanding the Supreme Court to counteract the six-judge conservative majority on the court. The GOP-controlled Senate confirmed the latest conservative, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, just before the November election following the death of liberal champion Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. After refusing to say whether he supports adding seats to the court, Biden in October said he would establish a panel to explore the idea.
On the Republican side, Rep. Mark Amodei split with President Donald Trump on whether there was widespread voter fraud in Nevada. Amodei does not intend to join many of his GOP peers in objecting to the House ratification of the Electoral College electors in Arizona, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Georgia and Wisconsin. A group of House Democrats plans to force votes on the election results in those states.
In a party-line difference, Amodei questioned the effectiveness of locking down businesses. The state’s only congressional Republican, he cited statistics recently released by New York state that showed restaurants were responsible for less than 2 percent of the COVID-19 cases between September and November. Amodei said he believes there is a market incentive for businesses to be safe when it comes to customer health.
Republicans, led by Trump, have questioned whether closures of nonessential businesses and other measures taken in Nevada and around the country to keep the virus from spreading are worth the damage they cause to the economy. Nevada’s 10.1 percent unemployment rate for November was the second-highest among the 50 states and the District of Columbia. During the last week of December, Nevada also had the highest rate of hospitalizations for COVID-19 in the country, according to the COVID Tracking Project.
Along with a focus on recovery, both health and economic, Cortez Masto conceded that Democrats will have to debate and decide whether to abolish or make changes to the filibuster if they win the majority.
“Right now, I'm open to having this discussion, to hear from both of my [Democratic and GOP] colleagues on what that implies and what it means at the end of the day,” Cortez Masto said.
She noted that it could be a moot question if Democrats lose one of the two Senate runoffs in Georgia. “So stay tuned,” said Cortez Masto, who is wrapping up her term as chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC). The DSCC is the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm.
Her comments come as progressives, led by Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, want filibuster reform, believing that it would allow them to enact the agenda on which they campaigned. But centrists such as Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia do not support a change. He believes that the procedure fosters cooperation among the parties.
On adding justices to the Supreme Court, Cortez Masto is not in favor of doing so but endorses Biden’s idea of having a panel explore the idea.
“I am not supportive of expanding the Supreme Court because I haven't seen a good argument around it,” Cortez Masto said. “I am interested in President-elect Biden's study or the committee that he wants to put around it, to take a look at the court.”
She split with Biden on using the Green New Deal as a framework to tackle climate change.
“It's not even legislation, it's a concept,” Cortez Masto said.
Instead, she pointed to a report released in August by the Senate Democrats' Special Committee on the Climate Crisis as a source of ideas for climate-change solutions. Cortez Masto is a member of the panel.
Among its suggestions is a recommendation to stimulate economic growth by setting federal funds for climate-change mitigation equal to at least two percent of the economy. The funds should be invested so that at least 40 percent of the benefits help communities of color in addition to low-income, deindustrialized and disadvantaged communities, the report said.
Cortez Masto said her priorities mostly fall into two overarching categories. One is health care, which includes vaccine distribution, testing and contact tracing. The other is the economy and the need to help individuals and employers such as those in the hospitality industry.
Asked whether she backs Schumer’s proposal to forgive $50,000 of student debt per person, Cortez Masto said she was still reviewing it.
“I haven't looked at the outcome of that, so I don't have an idea on that yet,” Cortez Masto said adding, “I think there's a way to address it.”
She supports legislation that would allow student loan borrowers with high-interest rates on federal or private loans to refinance them at the current lower interest rate.
On health care, Cortez Masto said she will push for policies to support mental health and substance abuse recovery, an issue she said has been exacerbated during the pandemic because of job loss and the possibility of eviction. Those come on top of the typical stress and anxiety people feel under non-pandemic circumstances.
“We just stopped funding it at the level we should,” Cortez Masto said.
In December, she introduced legislation that would provide $35 million in new annual grant funding under a Mental Health Block Grant set aside for crisis services and also would direct the Department of Health and Human Services to provide technical guidance to help communities develop such services.
A bill she introduced in February aimed at reducing police suicides by collecting voluntary, anonymous data on the matter from local, state and federal law enforcement agencies was signed into law in June.
Cortez Masto also will continue to press for an infrastructure package and legislation to address the lack of affordable housing in the state.
As a member of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, she is well-positioned to address housing. The Banking Committee oversees the federally backed home mortgage lender Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and bank regulators.
Concerning infrastructure, Cortez Masto’s seat on the Senate Finance Committee, which oversees tax policy, will ensure that she will help develop how any infrastructure legislative package would be financed.
Rosen prides herself on working across the aisle. She was named one of the most bipartisan senators of the last two-year legislative session by public-affairs data and analytics firm Quorum.
When asked if she would support getting rid of the filibuster, she suggested that it would not be an issue if her colleagues worked across the aisle more.
“That's what people sent me here, to find common ground with folks to do things that are important for them,” Rosen said. “And so with the issue of the filibuster, if more folks maybe did what I did, and made friends and had conversations and tried to work things out, we would get more things done.”
She dismissed the idea of adding members to the Supreme Court, suggesting the idea had gained traction because of the heat of the presidential campaign.
“I think a lot of that was campaign rhetoric,” Rosen said. “And we need to get down to the business of taking care of folks right at their kitchen table.”
She demurred when asked about Schumer’s student loan forgiveness proposal. She was interviewed before the release of the final COVID-aid bill and said she would back any relief in the package. But the legislation ultimately did not include a student-loan-forgiveness provision and did not extend loan forbearance beyond the Jan. 31 deadline set by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in December.
Rosen also did not support using the Green New Deal as a framework for attacking climate change. She serves on the Bipartisan Senate Climate Solutions Caucus, which was launched in October 2019 by Biden’s close ally, Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, and said that their discussion group is best positioned to yield solutions that could pass the Senate.
Rosen said that the group has met over the last year and talked about achievable solutions like a bill introduced in June by the group’s co-chair, Sen. Mike Braun, a Republican from Indiana, that would encourage sustainable farming practices by making it easier for farmers to participate in carbon markets.
There are “lots of things in the agriculture space that will really make a difference,” Rosen said.
She added that addressing climate change also means developing clean, renewable energy. That could also help reinvigorate the economy in Nevada, which is a hotbed of solar and geothermal-generated energy development.
On the health care and recovery front, she listed a panoply of related measures that will need to be funded to fight the virus, including vaccine distribution and providing personal protective equipment, not just for health care workers, but for businesses to help them stay open while keeping the virus from spreading.
Rosen also said that Congress will need to explore funding measures to keep business going until the virus is eradicated, such as air-purification systems, barrier protections, masks, gloves and therapeutics to treat people who get sick. Nevada’s hospitality industry, led by casinos, is the basis of the state’s economy and can’t get back to fully functioning until in-person activities become safe again.
Funding for state and local governments will also be needed to prevent layoffs of police and firefighters and depletion of essential services, she said.
Aid to the hospitality and tourism industries will also be needed, as well as continuing safety-net programs for the unemployed so that they can stay afloat until the state’s small businesses come back. Unemployment aid programs like one that provides benefits to gig workers and the self-employed were extended by Congress, but only until the middle of March.
Rosen also will continue to push for improved broadband coverage around the state. She believes that the pandemic led to gains in telemedicine, where doctors are seen virtually over the internet.
She added that better broadband also would provide more customers to businesses that operate online and help boost the economy.
“We know we're doing lots of e-commerce,” Rosen said. “Broadband is the foundation for that.”
An early backer of Biden, Titus, who is also the longest-serving member of the Nevada delegation, said she would consider serving in the administration.
“I ran for re-election, because I love this job,” Titus said when asked about the possibility. “We still have a lot to do to get through this pandemic. A lot of people in District One are hurting. So that's where I'm focused. If the president reached out to me to ask about service, I’d certainly have to consider that, but I want to do what's best for Nevada.”
Despite her close ties to Biden, Titus said she does not believe the Green New Deal would be a good framework for generating ideas to take on climate change.
“Well, I didn't sign on to the Green New Deal for several reasons,” Titus said when asked about the issue. “One is I don't really sign on to anything that I can't read. And that was just kind of an ideal, not a practical ‘here are the nuts and bolts.’”
Titus also pointed to the fact that the Green New Deal does not discuss nuclear power or the waste issue in any detail.
“Also it didn't mention how they were going to deal with nuclear power,” Titus continued. “And until we resolve nuclear waste, I don't want to go down that path.”
Titus also said she is comfortable with former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, Biden’s pick to lead the Department of Energy. While she was unsure of Granholm’s position on Yucca, Titus said that Biden has been unequivocally against the project and expects that will be the federal government’s policy.
She also said she backed forgiving $10,000 of student debt per person rather than the $50,000 proposed by Schumer. Titus pointed to the fact that the initial iteration of the HEROES Act, the $3 trillion COVID-aid package approved by House Democrats in May, would have provided $10,000-per-person in student loan forgiveness.
“I think there are other things you can do besides just increasing the amount that's forgiven,” Titus said. “And one of those things is a bill that I've co-sponsored that would allow students to refinance their loans down to this year's interest rate, which is about as low as you can go. And that's another way to attack the problem.”
Titus said she expects Congress to take another whack at more stimulus for the economy this year. She said one way of providing funds to help tourist-based economies, including Nevada’s, is through the Economic Development Administration, which provides grants to economically distressed communities to generate new employment and stimulate growth. Titus oversees the agency as chairman of the House Transportation Committee’s Economic Development, Public Building, and Emergency Management Subcommittee.
“I want to be sure tourism is always at the table, and that we focus on things like the restaurant business and on Nevada entertainment businesses,” Titus, who is also co-chair of the Congressional Travel and Tourism Caucus, said.
She successfully added language to a bill passed by the House in November that would create about 1 million new apprenticeships to include those in the hospitality and tourism industry.
Titus said she also will press for an infrastructure package that includes funding for the extension of Interstate 11 to connect Phoenix and Las Vegas. The Nevada portion is complete, but federal funds are needed to finish the project through Arizona.
“That'll help with bringing back our economy to create jobs, and it'll create markets,” Titus said of the road.
Titus said she hopes there will be legislation on gun violence and immigration reform. But that would take cooperation from Republicans, especially if the Senate remains under GOP control.
“I think you'll see a lot of reaching out to Congress,” Titus said of Biden. “He knows the members of Congress. He's worked with them for a long time. He's been in the Senate. So I don't think he's going to just try to do everything by executive order. And I think that's right.”
Amodei called for more support for hospitals and medical infrastructure when asked about his priorities. During the height of the pandemic, hospitals canceled nonessential procedures, cutting into their revenues. Amodei is concerned that health care facilities may be forced to cut back services to get back into the black.
“The worst time to have hospitals start having to cut back on the whole panoply, like the large ones, especially the large ones you have in Vegas, and in Reno, is a pandemic,” Amodei said. “I think it's one of those things where the challenge is not to take for granted that it's like, ‘well, you know, they'll find a way.’ You don't want to find out you guessed wrong on that.”
He also wants lawmakers to learn from the lockdown and reserve closures for where they are most effective. He pointed to New York, which released a report showing that restaurants accounted for only 1.4 percent of all COVID cases yet still closed indoor dining in New York last month. A group of restaurants recently sued the state to reopen citing the low transmission rate.
“Let's take a look at groceries, let's take a look at casino resorts, let's take a look at restaurants or whatever,” Amodei said, adding that the government should harness market incentives.
“None of those people make money and stay financially viable if they are careless with their patrons' health during a pandemic,” he said. “So does that mean that there shouldn't be rules? Absolutely not. But nobody has a greater interest, whatever their profession’s operations are, in being safe, than the people who make their living with it.”
Amodei, a member of the group of House centrists known as the Problem Solvers Caucus, is still generally a reliable Republican vote. He voted with the majority of Republicans to override the president’s veto of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and against raising the $600 one-time payment in the COVID-aid package to $2,000, which was backed by Trump. Amodei said he did not support it because he wanted aid to be more targeted to people who truly need it. On the NDAA, Amodei, whose district includes Naval Air Station Fallon, voted to override the veto, as did most Republicans.
He also disagreed with Trump that there was widespread voter fraud in Nevada’s election, though he reiterated his belief that Democrats in the Legislature and Gov. Steve Sisolak last summer enacted Assembly Bill 4 (AB4), which required that all active voters be sent mail-in ballots, in order to help the Democratic presidential candidate.
“I think AB4 was enacted and signed by the governor because they were looking for a specific result,” Amodei said.
Amodei said he will not object to the Electoral College vote tallies on Jan. 6, a largely ceremonial procedure required by the U.S. Constitution to make election results official. A group of House Republicans is expected to object to the electors of certain states, possibly even Nevada, which could delay the process by forcing votes in the House and Senate. But it is not expected to change the outcome.
He also declined to join with 126 House Republicans who said they supported a lawsuit filed by Texas that challenged the election results in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. The Supreme Court declined to consider it. Amodei said he did not think it was right for one state to tell another how to run an election.
Amodei expects the Navy, after failing last year, to again seek to expand the Fallon live-fire facility in next year’s NDAA. He pressed to get legislation included in the NDAA that would have expanded the facility and allowed the development of federal public land in Douglas County, Lander County, Carson City, Pershing County and the City of Sparks. His bill was similar to a proposal put forward by Cortez Masto.
“I thought it was a pretty responsible proposal, and the fact that Senator Cortez Masto’s bill and ours were pretty close to identical I think is testimony to the fact that people were working the issues and not the politics,” Amodei said.
His office has already reached out to Cortez Masto’s to try to introduce identical bills this year.
Rep. Susie Lee, also a member of the Problem Solvers Caucus, said she expects Congress to work on another COVID-aid package in the first quarter of this year. She was a vocal proponent for relief last year.
Workforce development will be part of that, she hopes, in order to help people in Nevada who have lost their jobs to train for new ones in different fields as well as help diversify the economy.
“We know that when we have recessions across this country, that Nevada seems to have a deeper recession, because we're a one-pony show,” Lee said. “And so I think that we need to take a concerted effort and it's not just at the federal level, it's state and local, and marry our higher-ed plan with our economic development goals.”
“I'm going to be focused on making sure when there's stimulus packages coming down the pike, that if there's dedicated funding, that we're positioning Nevada to be at the forefront to get some of those funds,” Lee continued.
Lee is set to join the House Appropriations Committee beginning in the next congressional session, Jan. 3, which will give her influence over the nation's spending policies.
This year, she also intends to focus on expanding access to health care, reducing prescription drug pricing, rebuilding crumbling transportation and infrastructure, as well as bringing down the cost of education and student debt.
She pointed to a $1.5 trillion infrastructure package approved by the House in July that included funding for housing, school construction, water infrastructure, expansion of broadband services, health care and more.
A supporter of addressing climate change, Lee noted that any infrastructure package would have to include provisions to address the issue to earn her support.
She dismissed Biden’s adoption of the Green New Deal as a framework. “I just don't think there's one framework that is ‘the’ framework,” Lee said. “I think that there are many opportunities, and I think that we need to look at the policies across the board. Because this is...an existential threat.”
On student debt and Schumer’s $50,000 plan, Lee said she wants to attack the problem of affordability, not just the debt issue.
“Before I commit to any one specific policy, I want to be working on what it is that is happening that is leading students to take out enormous amounts of debt where they're getting either no education or getting an education that does not allow them to pay it off,” Lee said.
Both the House and Senate approved Lee’s resolution to keep a Department of Education (DOE) so-called borrower defense rule from going into effect. The rule would make it more difficult for borrowers who are defrauded by their school or harmed by their school’s closure to receive restitution. The resolution was vetoed by Trump and the House failed to override the veto in June.
Rep. Steven Horsford said that the coming year will be spent helping the nation get back to normal, which means helping the unemployed, reopening schools and supporting first responders among other things.
Horsford will continue in his role as a member of the Ways and Means Committee, which will play a key role in drafting tax policy to help the economy recover.
The Nevada Democrat intends to continue to press for tax breaks to help Nevada, including the Hospitality and Commerce Job Recovery Act.
“My bill does create a tax credit for the cost of hosting or attending conventions and trade shows, which is incredibly important to our local economy,” Horsford said, adding that he will continue to make the case for the bill in future relief packages.
Horsford also pushed back on the Green New Deal, saying it was a distraction from pursuing actual policy.
“I don't want to be caught up in terms,” Horsford said. “This is about policy. And what I've said is we need a policy that ensures that we position the United States to be energy independent, that we do so with a focus on addressing our climate crisis, and that we stay centered on growing the American workforce through job training, and education that really moves the middle class forward.”
He backs canceling student loan debt, but would leave it up to Biden to decide the amount.
“I support taking whatever action is reasonable for us to take,” Horsford said. “The amount is something that, one, I would leave to the president under his authority. And also to the extent there is congressional action. I'm open, but we need to do something to help provide that relief.”
He recommended that Biden use his executive authority to cancel some amount of debt for holders of federal student loans. But he said that students with debt from private lenders would need some other form of help.
Horsford is also broadening his influence in Congress by leading the Congressional Black Caucus’ (CBC) 100-days Task Force, which, in part, will communicate their policy priorities to the Biden administration. He was tapped for the role by the 59-member group in November, Axios first reported. Horsford will also serve in the CBC leadership as first vice chair.
As lead of the task force, his responsibilities include recommending African American candidates for roles in the administration. Asked about comments made by House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, the top-ranking black lawmaker in Congress, about being discouraged by the small number of African Americans in the Biden administration, Horsford said it was just Clyburn’s way of pressuring Biden.
“The whip has been putting the necessary attention on having the president-elect do what he said he was going to do,” Horsford.
Clyburn helped Biden win the Democratic nomination by endorsing his candidacy, which helped Biden win the South Carolina primary. The momentum spurred Biden to the nomination.
After the South Carolina victory, Biden pledged to have a diverse administration. Horsford believes Biden will make good on the promise.
“But my expectation is that in the end, we will have the most diverse and history-making cabinet and administration in the history of our country,” Horsford said.