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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Come on, Congress, just get it done’: Northwest lawmakers weigh in on COVID-19 relief talks as deadline looms

In this November photo the morning sun illuminates the rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington.  (J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON – The House of Representatives passed a one-week stopgap spending bill Wednesday, a first step toward averting a government shutdown at week’s end and buying time for the 116th Congress to take one last shot at passing another round of pandemic relief legislation as COVID-19 strains the nation’s hospitals.

Northwest lawmakers said they were confident the Senate would pass the spending bill and President Donald Trump would sign it before government funding runs out at the end of Friday, but they were less optimistic about the odds of negotiators striking a coronavirus relief deal by the end of next week.

Rep. Kim Schrier, a freshman Democrat whose district stretches from Wenatchee to the eastern suburbs of Seattle, said she’s lost patience with the gridlock that has kept Congress from sending more aid to struggling workers, businesses and state and local governments since lawmakers passed the CARES Act in March.

“Over the last two years, and certainly over the last six months, my frustration with Congress has grown,” Schrier said. “I suspect it very much reflects the way my constituents feel, which is, ‘Come on, Congress, just get it done.’ ”

In March, Congress sent roughly $3 trillion in aid in the form of enhanced unemployment benefits, forgivable loans to businesses and direct payments to state, local and tribal governments, among other stimulus spending to soften the economic blow from the pandemic. Since then, Democratic and GOP negotiators have spent months blaming each other and failing to span the gulf between the additional $3 trillion package House Democrats passed in May and the $1.1 trillion in spending Senate Republicans proposed at the end of July.

Democrats lowered their demands to $2.2 trillion in October, but rather than meet in the middle, Republicans then offered even less, with Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky supporting a narrower $500 billion relief package.

Democratic leaders, fearing they had just one shot at a bill and wary of giving Trump a win before the election, have so far held out for more comprehensive legislation, but President-elect Joe Biden’s support for a $908 billion compromise proposal – and the promise of more aid under a Biden presidency – are pushing more Democrats to conclude something is better than nothing.

“All along,” Schrier said, “I have said, ‘Just something. Help small businesses. Help people who lost their jobs. Help people make sure they can pay the rent and that landlords also don’t lose their buildings. And help state and local governments so that we can keep fire, police, public health going.’

“I really feel urgency to get help to the people in this district, and I do not let perfect be the enemy of good.”

A coalition of moderate Democrats and Republicans in the Senate, frustrated by inaction on a relief deal while several critical deadlines loom at the end of the year, unveiled the $908 billion “framework” Dec. 1. Biden and other prominent Democrats have since thrown their weight behind that proposal, along with the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus, whose ranks include Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, a southwest Washington Republican.

By circumventing both parties’ leadership, the so-called “908 Coalition” jump-started the stalled talks, but McConnell says the freelancing moderates should defer to party leaders. Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, said having multiple negotiating tracks complicates efforts to reach an agreement.

“I don’t want to demean the 908 Coalition,” Risch said, “but we elect leadership because when you get a major issue like this, either leadership does it itself or it gives credentials to somebody to negotiate … They were pretty much vigilantes.”

The White House further complicated the picture Tuesday when Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin proposed a different $916 billion bill that strips $160 billion in aid to state, local and tribal governments from the moderates’ legislation. The federal government can borrow money at near-zero interest, something cash-strapped state, local and tribal governments can’t do.

Many Republicans oppose that direct aid to governments while Democrats and some in the GOP insist it is essential. Meanwhile, the $908 billion compromise bill also includes liability protections to shield businesses, nonprofits and universities from COVID-related lawsuits, a provision Democrats largely decry as anti-worker.

McConnell suggested Tuesday the two sides drop both contentious provisions, but Democratic leaders angrily rejected the proposal, pointing out the Senate leader had earlier acknowledged help for state, local and tribal governments would need to be in a compromise bill. The White House proposal also eliminates the bipartisan coalition’s $300-a-week enhanced unemployment benefits in favor of one-time payments of $600.

Risch said he would not rule out supporting a bill based on any single provision and had faith in the negotiators’ intentions, but he was less sanguine about their chances of reaching an agreement.

“I want to be flexible on all these things so I can give considerably on something in order to get something that I feel good about,” he said. “I’m optimistic that everybody wants to get something done. I’m not optimistic with the negotiations that are going on.”

Rep. Russ Fulcher said he was frustrated that rank-and-file members haven’t been involved in crafting a relief bill. The freshman Republican, whose district includes North Idaho, voiced concerns common among conservatives about the rising federal deficit but acknowledged Congress’s obligation to support people hurt by restrictions on businesses.

“Every time we approve one of these bills, we have to remind ourselves that we’re sending the invoice to our grandkids,” Fulcher said. “At the same time, the government is responsible for part of this because we made it illegal for certain people to earn a living.”

Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat and member of her party’s leadership, laid the blame at McConnell’s feet.

“Workers, families, and small businesses in Washington state have already waited way too long for desperately needed relief,” Murray said in a statement, “so I am pushing hard to get the absolute most we can – in particular to continue on-the-ground state, local, and Tribal pandemic response efforts – and help our communities get through the next few tough months until there’s a new Administration who will take this seriously and work with us to do much more.”

“The question is whether Republican leaders will finally be willing to compromise so we can reach an agreement that actually helps people in need,” Murray said. “So far, that unfortunately hasn’t been the case.”

Herrera Beutler, who has led a House GOP effort to force a vote on a standalone bill to extend the forgivable business loan program that expired in August, said in a Dec. 1 statement the $908 billion bipartisan proposal should be the basis for aid to get the nation through the winter as COVID-19 infections and deaths continue to rise. The virus killed more than 3,000 Americans on Wednesday, breaking a record set a week earlier.

“This effort represents a bridge to get America’s workers, small businesses and communities through this challenging time until vaccines and treatments are readily available,” Herrera Beutler said. “I won’t let up in my efforts to break the gridlock that’s plagued Washington, D.C. and get a COVID relief package through Congress and out to the Americans who need it.”

If senators pass the short-term spending bill and Trump signs it before the end of Friday, lawmakers will have until Dec. 18 to pass pandemic relief legislation along with another spending bill.