Moderates midwife long-stalled pandemic relief bill

January 1, 2021
In The News

President Donald Trump this week finally signed a $900 billion pandemic bailout bill that split the two representatives for Rim Country and the White Mountains in Congress.

The pandemic package includes $600 for each taxpayer making less than $75,000, another 11 weeks of extended unemployment totaling $300 per week, continued coverage for gig and part-time workers, a continuation of the ban on evictions, nearly $300 billion in low-cost or forgivable loans for businesses affected by the pandemic and $70 billion for vaccine distribution and COVID testing. The last-minute vote also averted a government shutdown.

However, President Donald Trump has criticized the package for not including at least $2,000 for individual taxpayers as well as the large number of unrelated provisions in the overall package. After a weeklong delay that allowed extended unemployment benefits to expire, Trump signed the package on the brink of a government shutdown.

The COVID relief provisions are linked to a $2.4 trillion package designed to keep the government running, which was laden with a host of other provisions that drew criticism from both sides of the aisle. Lawmakers had hours to absorb the details of the 5,500-page package, which included protection against surprise medical bills, major new tax breaks for businesses, military spending and new regulations for race tracks in Kentucky. The bill will also allow businesses to deduct from taxes both the federal loans they receive and the business expenditures those loans covered, effectively doubling the tax benefit.

It’s unclear when people will begin receiving the individual payments or how the delay will affect unemployment benefits. Arizona’s unemployment benefits programs has suffered major problems in disbursing the original extended and expanded unemployment benefits — including big problems with fraudulent claims.

Rep. Paul Gosar voted against the $2.4 trillion package, which included the $900 billion pandemic stimulus bill as well as an omnibus spending bill to keep government running. Lawmakers faced both a Christmas recess deadline and a possible government shutdown if they balked at the package.

He cited provisions in the package that would provide foreign aid, climate change studies and immigration provisions. “When Congress votes to prioritize foreign citizens over our own, I will always call them out and will be an emphatic no,” said Gosar, who represents all of Rim Country and much of western Arizona in an overwhelmingly Republican district.

“Additionally,” he said, “the bill is over 5,500 pages and Congress was given mere hours to read it. No member can honestly say they know exactly what they voted for this evening. That is reason alone to vote no.”

On the other hand, Rep. Tom O’Halleran played a key role in development of the compromise that broke a nine-month partisan standoff. The Democrat, who represents all the White Mountains and eastern Arizona, is part of the bipartisan “Problem Solvers Caucus” in the house, which pulled together the compromise from which the final bill grew.

“While I am beyond relieved we’ve finally passed a new, bipartisan deal for struggling families, businesses, and hospitals, this is no victory,” said O’Halleran in a prepared statement. “It is merely delivering the bare minimum for the American people. Today, we finally did what should have been done months ago. Since we passed the CARES Act in March, I’ve worked with a bipartisan, bicameral group to come to the table, stay at the table, and work to restart negotiations. While today’s package is not the totality of relief that is needed, I’m pleased we are finally moving in the direction we desperately need to go.”

Bipartisan groups of moderates in the House and Senate played the key role in outflanking the Senate and House leadership, which had been in a bitter standoff for months. House Democrats wanted a $2.4 trillion package that included $1,200 per taxpayer and $100 billion for schools for state and local governments as well as a continuation of $600 weekly extended unemployment benefits. Senate Republicans wanted a $300 billion package, with most of the money going to business and corporate loans. The Senate package would have included sweeping liability protections for businesses and corporations for lawsuits related to the pandemic.

The Problem Solvers Caucus ultimately broke with the leadership and fashioned a $1 trillion package that pulled key elements from both the Republican and Senate plans. A bipartisan group of moderate Senators built on that proposal with a $900 billion plan that struck a compromise by dropping the liability protection from the Republican side and the local government aid on the Democratic side.

After President-elect Joe Biden quietly signaled the need for a compromise plan, House and Senate Democratic leaders came on board. After a final frantic round of negotiations, both sides agreed on a compromise that passed with an overwhelming majority — aside from a relatively small number of dissenters like Gosar.

However, House and Senate leadership negotiated the final details of the bill behind closed doors and then gave the rest of the House and Senate members just hours to vote on the full, linked package — after inserting a host of seemingly unrelated provisions.

O’Halleran put out a release detailing projects and funding in the package to benefit his sprawling district, which includes the Navajo, Hopi and Apache reservations.

“While today’s legislation addresses some concerns, it comes nowhere close to addressing all concerns,” remarked O’Halleran following the vote. “I never want to see the kind of partisan procrastination we dealt with all summer hamstring our ability to function as a Congress again. Lawmakers in both chambers and on both sides of the aisle need to wake up to the reality that these bills are life or death for the families we are sworn to represent — the nurse working around the clock, the mother feeding her children on food stamps that are running out, the manager unable to pay his employees. We’ve let them down this year and we must do better, period.”

Gosar said the package of bills with a host of provisions not clearly related to the pandemic was evidence of the government’s dysfunction. For instance, the package included a provision to protect consumers from surprise bills from “out of network” providers when they go to the hospital.

“I voted NO against the supposed COVID relief bill because it shells out billions of our dollars to foreign governments,” he said in a prepared statement. “We need every dollar here helping our citizens.”