By Matt Murphy
Congressional House Democrats said Tuesday that they would remain in Washington as long as it takes to strike a deal for another round of coronavirus relief spending, but a bipartisan effort to find middle ground with a new $2 trillion plan was quickly rejected by top Democrats, including Rep. Richard Neal.
The back-and-forth in Congress painted an increasingly murky picture of the prospects for federal relief at a time when Gov. Charlie Baker and state budget writers in the Legislature are craving any type of certainty in the midst of the pandemic.
Baker has said that any stimulus package that doesn’t include billions in relief for state and local government “doesn’t make a lot of sense” to him, but Republicans and Democrats in Washington remain far apart.
U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York and U.S. Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts said after a conference call with House Democrats that the speaker was prepared to extend the session as long as it takes to get another coronavirus relief package passed.
“We cannot let Mitch McConnell try to run a Congressional calendar out on the suffering,” said Clark, the vice chair of the Democratic Caucus. “And so we are going to stand strong, and we are going to bring the voices of our constituents and families across this country here to Congress and say, ‘We see you. And we’re going to fight for you.’ And we will do that until we have relief for them.”
Congress and President Trump this year have agreed to well over $3 trillion in coronavirus aid, including the March passage of the CARES Act, and the Federal Reserve Bank has been aggressive with economic recovery plans. But as the pandemic has worn on, calls have persisted for additional aid to help people and the economy.
The House passed the $3.4 trillion Heroes Act in May, but Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have said they’d be willing to come down to $2.4 trillion to get a deal done. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, meanwhile, initially proposed a $1 trillion relief package, and then last week reduced that to about $650 billion in a “skinny” bill that Democrats blocked.
“This is a very simple question that we all here at the Capitol have to ask and answer. Is this an extraordinary event that has afflicted the American people or not? If it’s an extraordinary event then then Congressional COVID-19 pandemic response should be extraordinary as well,” said Jeffries, the chair of the Democratic Caucus.
The press conference with Democratic leadership came after a House Democratic caucus meeting that lasted about an hour and 45 minutes, Jeffries said, and before the Problems Solvers Caucus – a group of 50 centrist House lawmakers from both parties – rolled out a nearly $2 trillion coronavirus relief framework.
The Problem Solvers’ plan would include $500 billion for states, extend enhanced unemployment benefits, but not at the full $600 a week level, and deliver another round of stimulus checks to families.
The framework was quickly rejected by eight Democratic committee chairs who issued a joint statement arguing that the proposal “leaves too many needs unmet.” Neal, a Springfield Democrat and chair of the Ways and Means Committee, signed the statement.
“While we appreciate every attempt at providing critical relief to American families, the Problem Solvers Caucus’ proposal falls short of what is needed to save lives and boost the economy,” the chairs said.
Clark said she was “grateful that we have colleagues on both sides of the aisle who are trying to work towards a solution.”
“I hope that the Republicans on the Problem Solvers will be an inspiration to the Senate and come and join us back at the negotiating table,” Clark said.
With the annual state budget overdue and on hold, Baker and legislative leaders have been waiting for signs from Washington about additional budget relief, if any, that states like Massachusetts can expect this year.
State Rep. Todd Smola, the ranking Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, said the stalemate in Washington has made preparing for this fiscal year more challenging that it already was because of the pandemic.
State government is operating on a a three-month interim budget that allocated over $16 billion, and runs out on Oct. 31. Smola said last week it was a “coin flip” whether the Legislature would be ready to move forward with a budget bill for the remainder of fiscal 2021 next month, or if another extension would be necessary.
“The big thing that we’re waiting on is to see what the federal government is going to do. We are waiting for some sort of federal action and I think everybody at the federal level is to blame for the inaction, from the White House right to the Senate and the House,” Smola said. “These folks have to get together and come up with an assistance package that is going to come back down to states so that we know how we can plan for the rest of the year.”
Smola said any guidance from the federal government would be “really, really helpful.”
“Now if Washington, D.C. comes down and says, ‘We’re giving you nothing folks. Tough luck, live with it. Great. And I mean great as in sarcastically great because at the end of the day we need that help but the uncertainty of not knowing that, it creates such a challenge for us at the state level,” Smola said last week on the News Service’s “State House Takeout” podcast.
U.S. Sen. Edward Markey said Tuesday that any relief package must “match the scale” of the economic devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic that led to Massachusetts having the highest unemployment rate in the country at 16.1 percent in July.
Markey called for a monthly cash payment of $2,000 to qualifying Americans to help them pay bills, and $4 billion to help make sure that all students have internet access at home for remote schooling.
“A monthly payment is the kind of big policy that provides relief on the scale that is needed,” Markey said.
Markey also said the $600-a-week enhanced unemployment benefit that expired in July should be extended through January 2021, and $1 billion in rental assistance should be accompanied by an extended moratorium on evictions.
MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak joined a call Tuesday with other public transit officials to request at least $32 billion in emergency funding as part of any relief package to help stabilize the finances of public transit agencies around the country.
The call, which was organized by the American Public Transportation Association, also featured business and transportation leaders, including former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
“Congress, Step up. Now’s the time,” La Hood said. “Please don’t shortchange critical public transit around the country.”
Poftak said that the number of rides per day on the MBTA plummeted during the pandemic from 1.3 million to a low of 140,000. He said usage is “climbing gently, but it’s climbing,” and has reached 280,000 trips per day.
Poftak said public transit will need to survive for any full economic recovery to be realized, but the T is facing a deficit next year of $300 million to $600 million, depending upon how ridership trends progress, and weighing service reductions and fare hikes.
“What we need is a federal government that will help us, that will help us sustain our service, that will help us rebuild our communities, that will help us get people where they need to go, which is why we all got into this business,” Poftak said.