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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Northwest lawmakers pursue different priorities in new COVID relief package

Rep. Russ Fulcher, R-Idaho listens to testimony, Monday, June 29, 2020, on Capitol Hill in Washington. He said a Democratic proposal to continue $600 a week payment to the unemployed, in addition to state jobless benefits, “makes it more attractive not to go back to work.”  (Bonnie Cash)

WASHINGTON – Lawmakers are set to return to the Capitol on Monday after a two-week break, facing a de facto deadline at the end of the month to pass another round of coronavirus relief, but Republicans and Democrats will first need to reconcile dramatically different visions for what the legislation should include.

Much of the unprecedented $3 trillion in economic stimulus Congress doled out in March has dried up, and with the pandemic showing no signs of slowing, the parties seem to agree the federal government needs to act again to stem the damage COVID-19 is doing to the economy and public health.

But the accord seems to end there.

GOP leadership has roundly dismissed a bill House Democrats passed in May to authorize another $3 trillion to prop up state and local governments and extend direct payments to families. Instead, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has been crafting a counteroffer, which is expected to add up to around $1 trillion and include liability protections to help businesses and schools reopen without the threat of COVID-related lawsuits.

“The coronavirus package will be front and center, and that will dominate our time over the next few weeks,” McConnell said in a radio interview July 13.

The Kentucky Republican has called liability protections, which would apply to schools and businesses that follow public health guidelines, a “red line” on which he won’t negotiate .

The effective deadline for the parties to reach an agreement is July 31, when the extra $600-a-week unemployment benefits lawmakers enacted in March will expire. It’s also the last day before Congress begins its August recess, leaving two weeks to settle on a bill.

“How many times have we had to say in the course of the pandemic, ‘We are at a critical moment?’ ” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Wednesday. “We really are at an even more critical moment now.”

The pandemic has touched virtually every aspect of American society, and lawmakers representing the Inland Northwest are looking to use the relief package to address a wide range of priorities.

Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, said in a statement that he hopes to secure long-term funding for two federal programs that send payments to rural areas whose tax bases are limited by public lands.

“As Congress works with the Administration to consider the next phase of federal support,” Crapo said, “I will continue working with my colleagues in the Senate to advance legislation that focuses on getting Idahoans and Americans safely back to work and school by increasing access to testing and providing legal protections for businesses, health care workers and schools. I also remain committed to advocating for resources for smaller, more rural communities to ease recovery.”

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., has called for extending the $600 supplemental unemployment benefits, and for more funding for schools and hospitals.

“Congress needs to extend support for everyone who has lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic and get more funding for our hospitals and schools,” she said in a statement. “It’s also critical we increase testing and make sure our health care and front-line workers have the PPE they need.”

Cantwell also co-sponsored a resolution July 2 calling for Congress to increase funding for the U.S. Postal Service in the next round of relief funding. In the early days of the pandemic, USPS leaders warned the mail service was losing so much money it could go bankrupt by September.

Congress approved an emergency loan of $10 billion in March to keep USPS afloat. So far it has not tapped into that money, buoyed by a pandemic-induced spike in package delivery business, but this week the service’s chief implemented cost-cutting measures that could slow deliveries and hurt its ability to compete with private parcel services, The Washington Post reported.

Idaho GOP Sen. Jim Risch noted that not all the money Congress appropriated in March has been spent and called for a narrower relief bill this month.

“While the CARES Act was broad, any additional package should be targeted,” Risch said in a statement. “We should deliver relief to the families and businesses in greatest need, ensure medical professionals and essential workers have necessary supplies, and restore our economy to the incredible and historic successes we enjoyed immediately preceding the pandemic.”

Sen. Patty Murray, the top Democrat on the Senate’s health and education committee, introduced on June 30 a bill that would direct $430 billion to support education and child care programs. On a call with reporters Thursday, the Washington senator said her legislation should be rolled into an eventual compromise bill.

“I’m going to be working very hard to make sure this bill is in the next relief package,” Murray said. “We’ve got to make sure that students and parents and teachers stay safe.”

A spokesperson for Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers said the Spokane Republican wants to see both liability reform and more funding to prop up the economy.

“In any future COVID-19 relief legislation in Congress, Cathy wants to ensure resources are spent wisely and responsibly, and that those who need relief have the certainty they need,” her spokesman, Jared Powell, said. “More assistance is needed for small businesses, families, farmers, health care providers, and schools, while also providing liability protections so we can reopen our economy safely without risking frivolous lawsuits.”

Rep. Russ Fulcher, a Republican who represents North Idaho, said a payroll tax cut – something President Donald Trump has called for in the next relief package – should be a top priority. He predicted a fight between the parties over renewing the $600 enhanced unemployment program, which Democrats have said they want to extend.

With November’s election looming, there are also political considerations for both parties. Fulcher said he suspects Democrats would rather see workers stay home to keep unemployment numbers high when voters go the polls in less than four months, while Republicans are pushing for the economy to reopen.

“The priority for the Democrat leadership is administration turnover,” Fulcher said. “If the unemployment figures are higher in November, that’s going to be a leg up for their candidate.”

“On our side, it’s ‘get the engine going again,’ ” he said. “So the motives are different, but that’s the political side of this, and it’s ugly.”