June 13, 2024

Senate Democrats seek aid for Black Americans in virus bill

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) speaks during a press conference on Capitol Hill on June 30, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON (AP) — As Senate Republicans prepare to roll out their next COVID-19 aid bill, the top Democrat said Thursday that he wants to shift $350 billion from an untapped Treasury Department virus relief program to help Black Americans and other people of color during the pandemic and beyond.

Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York said moving some of the $500 billion previously approved for Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin would make immediate and long-term changes to address systemic racism.

“Long before the pandemic, long before this recession, long before this year’s protests, structural inequalities have persisted in health care and housing, the economy and education,” Schumer said in a statement. “COVID-19 has only magnified these injustices.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is poised to release the GOP’s $1 trillion package as soon as next week. That plan is a counteroffer to the sweeping $3 trillion proposal that House Democrats approved in May, as the outbreak spreads and the economic fallout deepens.

Read More: Supreme Court says Congress can’t get Trump records, for now

It’s been months since McConnell hit “pause” on new spending, as he puts it, and Republicans now face a potentially more dire situation. They had hoped the pandemic would ease and the economy would recover. Instead, coronavirus cases are spiking, states are resuming shutdowns and parents are wondering if it’s safe to send children back to school.

“There were some that hoped this would go away sooner than it has,” McConnell said Wednesday during a hospital visit in Kentucky, where he urged people to wear masks and social distance.

“The straight talk here that everyone needs to understand: This is not going away,” McConnell said.

This would be the fifth virus rescue bill since spring. Such an unprecedented federal intervention has occurred as Congress races to provide a comprehensive national strategy to try to bring the pandemic under control.

Polling shows Americans are increasingly uneasy over President Donald Trump’s handling of the outbreak. Members of Congress are hoping to ease the health and economic crises before lawmakers, like the president, face voters in November.

McConnell is straining to keep costs down as Republicans revolt over deficit spending. Schumer’s proposal taps into efforts to shift money from other accounts to avoid fresh outlays.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s $3 trillion coronavirus aid bill, once dismissed by McConnell and others as a liberal wish list, now seems not as far-fetched.

“How many times have we said, ‘We’re at a critical moment’?” Pelosi, D-Calif., said Wednesday at the Capitol. “We really are at a critical moment now.”

Both the House and Senate have similar priorities: help schools reopen, provide unemployment benefits for jobless Americans and ramp up health care testing, treatments and a vaccine. But they differ broadly in size and scope.

House Democrats provided $100 billion for school reopenings in an education stabilization fund that Senate Democrats say could swell to $430 billion to include more money for child care, colleges and other needs. Senate Republicans are floating the idea of $50 billion to $75 billion in education funds; talks are ongoing.

Schumer’s proposal would immediately shift $135 billion from the Treasury’s fund to child care and health care needs of people of color during the pandemic. The plan would move $215 billion over five years into longer-term investments, including a housing down payment program, Medicaid expansion and other services.

The White House this week assured that more education dollars would flow as Trump pushes to reopen schools.

Trump’s advisers are split, with some pushing an even more robust education expenditure, even if it riles Republicans intent on keeping record-setting deficits down. Some conservatives want the education dollars tied to school reopenings or even sent directly to parents, in the form of a school voucher, for example.

The two sides are divided over how much aid to send to cash-strapped states and cities that are pleading for money and out-of-work Americans at a time of record unemployment.

Republicans want to reduce the $600 weekly unemployment boost that expires at the end of the month to a few hundred dollars a month.

Instead, Republicans are eyeing tax breaks for employers who upgrade workplaces with safety measures to prevent the spread of the virus.

Democrats want to keep the $600 jobless benefit boost. Pelosi’s bill would send nearly $1 trillion to states and cities to shore up budgets and avoid layoffs of municipal workers.

To keep costs down, Republicans are considering redirecting some already approved funds. For example, the popular Paycheck Protection Program of small business loans has leftover money that could be used for a revamped business loan program from Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.

One uncertainty is how to improve the nation’s poor performance on virus testing.

Read More: Sen. Kamala Harris announces anti-racism bill to fight COVID-19’s impact on Black communities

Both Republicans and Democrats complain that $25 billion in testing funds that were approved in April remain unspent even as certain parts of the country have testing shortages and widespread delays in results.

Pelosi’s bill provides $75 billion more for virus testing and contact tracing, with directives to the federal government to set up a national testing program. She said Wednesday that it’s time for Trump to invoke the Defense Production Act to provide equipment and supplies needed for a testing protocol.

Republicans have remained largely silent on how much testing money would be made available in the new bill. McConnell said Wednesday the government is “pursuing testing, treatment and vaccines like the country pursued the Manhattan Project in World War II.”

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