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Stimulus Watch: The Rescue Plan’s Final Cut

impeachment, Congress, COVID-19, coup, stimulus, LGBTQ+ Pride Month, LGBTQ+ equality, civil rights

Where’s the stimulus? Initial answer: It’s heading to President Joe Biden’s desk, where he’s guaranteed to sign the American Rescue Plan Act into law. More extensive answer: After the House passed H.R.1319, the Senate briefly fell into melodramatic chaos before finally emerging with a deal that required the bill’s return to the House before Biden can sign it into law.

So where’s the stimulus, and what will we be getting? As always, we got you covered.

So where’s the stimulus now? Finally, President Joe Biden can start planning his signing ceremony.
Joe Biden, stimulus
Photo by Andrew Davey

In a remarkable show of force for Congressional Democrats, President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan (H.R.1319) survived its high-stakes war on Capitol Hill mostly intact: $1,400+ “stimulus checks” for Americans who reported $75,000 or less in 2019 or 2020 taxable income (but with a faster phase-out at $80,000), almost $130 billion for K-12 schools and nearly $40 billion for colleges and universities to help them ensure safe reopening of in-person classes, $350 billion in flexible aid for state and local governments (including Native American tribal governments and U.S. territories), $46 billion to further improve the nation’s vaccine supply chain alongside improved COVID-19 testing and contact tracing, just over $34 billion in housing aid, two years of enhanced Affordable Care Act (ACA) insurance exchange consumer premium subsidies, up to $3,000 (for each child aged 6-17) or $3,600 (for each child under 6) in child tax credits, and over $47 billion in small business aid.

However, Senate Democrats made a few more changes on top of the changes that House Democrats enacted on their side of the U.S. Capitol. Chiefly, a small clique of centrist and conservative Democratic Senators pared back the federal weekly unemployment insurance (UI) boost from the $400 that House Democrats had passed back to the current $300 that’s been in place since January. Then, Senate progressives scored some clawback in the form of up to $10,200 in annual UI income becoming tax exempt for households earning under $150,000 annually. For a moment, it seemed like all Senate Democrats were finally on the same page.

Then, U.S. Senator Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) entered the chat… And almost completely derailed it for some six hours last Friday by threatening to back a hostile amendment from U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio) to only allow a fully taxed $300 weekly UI boost to July. It was only after Manchin reached a deal with Democratic leaders to allow for the (up to $10,200 income tax exempt) $300 weekly UI boost to continue to September 6 when the Senate resumed its necessary “vote-a-rama” featuring all sorts of proposed amendments in order to obtain the final vote to approve the full bill. Though Manchin ultimately provided the 50th vote to pass Portman’s hostile amendment, he subsequently provided the 50th vote for the Democratic amendment to override Portman’s. 

In addition to Portman’s hostile UI amendment, Democrats also had to vote down additional Republican hostile amendments, such as Senator Susan Collins‘ (R-Maine) attempt to cancel the entire bill and pass her own instead, Senator Tommy Tuberville‘s (R-Alabama) attempt to ban federal funding for schools that allow transgender athletes to play on school teams, and Senator Ted Cruz‘s (R-Texas) attempt to ban Rescue Plan assistance for mixed-status immigrant families. Though Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) lost on his own amendment to disregard the Senate parliamentarian’s ruling and keep the $15 national minimum wage in the bill, Democrats nonetheless succeeded in defeating all the hostile amendments and getting the full bill passed on a party-line 50-49 vote last Saturday. (Yes, Senators Catherine Cortez Masto [D] and Jacky Rosen [D] voted for the full bill and Sanders’ minimum wage amendment, and Reps. Dina Titus [D-Las Vegas], Steven Horsford [D-North Las Vegas], and Susie Lee [D-Las Vegas] all voted for the House version of the bill [that passed 219-212 on February 27] while Rep. Mark Amodei [R-Carson City] voted against.)

So where’s our stimulus? What are we getting?
Steve Sisolak, stimulus
Photo by Andrew Davey

The State of Nevada looks set to receive $2.9 billion in Rescue Plan state government aid, and that will be more than enough for Governor Steve Sisolak (D) and the Nevada Legislature to not only undo last year’s special session budget cuts, but also go above and beyond for a change. County and city governments were set to receive $1.33 billion under the House bill, but the final number here will likely be lower due to the Senate diverting $10 billion from the House’s local government aid pool into a special fund for state infrastructure projects like expansion of rural broadband internet.

Last year Rep. Steven Horsford (D-North Las Vegas) got House Democratic leaders to place in their HEROES Act his proposal for 100% COBRA health insurance coverage for qualified unemployed workers at no extra cost, but the House version of the Rescue Plan only included subsidies to cover 85% of COBRA costs. Apparently while some of her Senate colleagues were arguing over “stimulus checks” and the weekly UI boost, Senator Catherine Cortez Masto succeeded in amending the Rescue Plan to include the full 100% COBRA subsidy.

Steven Horsford, U.S. Postal Service, COVID-19, COVID-19 vaccines, vaccine
Photo by Andrew Davey

As we noted yesterday, Governor Steve Sisolak (D) and his public health team are eagerly awaiting the Rescue Plan being signed into law so they can determine how many more federal dollars will be available for vaccine distribution, COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, and other critical public health programs. In a terrifyingly ironic twist, the Nevada Legislature cut some health care programs last summer to balance the budget during a public health emergency. With targeted relief like the Medicaid FMAP boost and the Biden administration’s commitment to providing states more support for pandemic-era necessities like vaccinations, testing, and contact tracing, and with the above-mentioned $2.9 billion in flexible aid coming (the State of) Nevada’s way, the state will have more resources to reinvest in our habitually underfunded social safety net

And finally, what about the “stimulus checks” that many media pundits love to talk about the most? The bottom line here is that if you’re reporting over $80,000 (per adult) in 2020 taxable income you’re not getting that check, but if you’re reporting under $75,000 (per adult) in 2020 taxable income you’ll get $1,400, and both child and adult dependents are also eligible for $1,400 “stimulus checks”. But for those who are receiving some form of unemployment aid, keep in mind that if you already filed your 2020 federal income taxes yet you also qualify for both the “stimulus check” and the UI tax exemption (see above), you’ll probably need to file a Form 1040-X to maximize your stimulus benefits.

Please remind us again why this stimulus debate is even happening.
COVID-19, recession, stimulus
Photo by Andrew Davey

In case anyone needs reminders on why this Rescue Plan even happened, here are some things to keep in mind. According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), 25.1 million American workers (or 14.7% of the U.S.’s total workforce) have been directly harmed by COVID-19 and the subsequent recession, and another 1.2 million Americans applied for some form of UI aid during the last week of February. 

Closer to home, Nevada’s economy will likely remain in a precarious position so long as COVID-19 continues to discourage domestic and international tourism. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), 15% of Nevada adults are suffering from food insecurity, 20% of Nevada renters are behind on their rent, and an alarming 42% of Nevada adults struggle to keep up with standard household expenses. The Nevada Gaming Control Board has reported a 26.58% drop in casinos’ gaming revenue from January 2020 to January 2021, and the Nevada Current has noted that Nevada’s Medicaid enrollment reached a record-breaking 810,000 in January. 

There’s an incredibly potent reason why we’ve seen such a divergence between Capitol Hill chatter over “deficits and debt” and a bevy of polls showing overwhelming public support for more robust stimulus programs. As long as so many Americans continue to suffer this much hardship, the vast majority of them have zero appetite for politicians obsessing over whether stimulus aid is properly “targeted”. And as long as Republicans continue to rebrand themselves as the “white working-class heroes’ party” without actually offering worker-friendly policies, they may continue to have trouble convincing more voters they’re the “blue-collar, blue jeans, and beer party” while opposing policies that working-class voters want and need the most.

Finally, there’s this: Democrats (mostly) won the stimulus fight. Are they ready to fight for the rest of their agenda?
health care, Affordable Care Act. stimulus, economy
Photo by Andrew Davey

Even though Democratic leaders are pumped over their success in passing the American Rescue Plan and giving Joe Biden his first legislative accomplishment of his presidency, the fractious process and the growing angst surrounding Congress’ overall legislative process should serve as a loud wake-up call for the trouble that lies ahead for the rest of their agenda. If the Senate parliamentarian doesn’t consider the minimum wage as germane to Congress’ reconciliation rules, then I really don’t see how Senate Democrats will ever manage to slip their For the People Act (H.R.1) omnibus voting rights bill, the Equality Act (H.R.5) omnibus LGBTQ+ civil rights bill, the Background Checks Act (H.R.8), or any other high-profile policy bill into any reconciliation package any time soon. 

Moving closer to home again, I regularly get press releases from all of Nevada’s Democratic members of Congress highlighting their own legislation. All of Nevada’s Democrats in Congress have reintroduced the Nuclear Waste Storage Informed Consent Act to put an end to the Yucca Mountain stalemate and other proposals to dump nuclear waste in Nevada once and for all. Horsford is working with Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) on legislation to improve states’ outdated and underfunded unemployment systems. Rosen is co-sponsoring a bill to improve public health agencies’ outreach to communities of color. Cortez Masto and Lee have introduced the Coronavirus Medicaid Response Act to make the Medicaid FMAP into an automatic stabilizer for state governments by linking the FMAP to state unemployment rates.

All these bills address critical policy needs, yet none of these bills stand much of any chance of reaching the Senate floor unless they somehow get attached to Congress’ next must-pass government funding bill. However, there is one way to change this dynamic: change the filibuster rules that create a perpetual legislative logjam in the Senate.

Sooner or later Democrats will have to address this, and it’s most likely in their best interest to address this sooner. The longer the filibuster remains as-is, as in any one Senator can direct one’s staffer to email the Senate cloakroom and automatically paralyze a bill by subjecting it to a 60-vote supermajority threshold, the fewer opportunities Democrats have to pass much of anything else. And as much as some Democratic Party insiders like to use this legislative logjam to blame Republicans for popular bills dying in the Senate, it’s hard for voters to understand why they should blame Republicans for the logjam when Democrats have the majority. If Democrats want to keep their majority, they need to prove to voters that they benefit from Democrats having the majority. They don’t need to make it more complicated than it has to be.

6:10 AM UPDATE: Cortez Masto endorses filibuster reform.
Photo by Andrew Davey

Moments ago, Senator Catherine Cortez Masto‘s office sent a press release indicating her support for changing the Senate’s filibuster rules. More specifically, she declared her interest in changing the filibuster process from the current “have a staffer email the cloakroom” to the kind of “talking filibuster” that was featured in the classic film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

According to Cortez Masto, “Nevadans expect their Senators to work across the aisle and get things done. Even when [Senate Republican Leader] Mitch McConnell [R-Kentucky] tried to shut out the Democratic minority, I worked to pass major bipartisan legislation combating human trafficking, expanding mental health treatment, and providing emergency COVID-19 relief, which Donald Trump signed into law. But McConnell is determined to exploit the filibuster and fight progress on the most urgent crises facing our nation and if he wants to block action on health care, climate change, and voting rights, he should have to stand on the Senate floor and be transparent about his obstruction. My job is to make a difference for the people of Nevada, and I look forward to partnering with all of my colleagues in passing critical legislation to address the challenges we’re facing today.”

Depending on what kind of language all 50 Senate Democrats can agree on, a “talking filibuster” rule may allow Senators to literally voice their objections to legislation, but not indefinitely block legislation out of personal animus, negative partisanship, or any other random reason. This marks an interesting evolution from Cortez Masto’s past reluctance to address filibuster reform, and it’s a major sign that Senate Democrats are closer than ever before to finally changing the rules to ensure the Senate actually legislates more. We’ll definitely keep an eye on this story as it continues to develop.

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  1. […] the Equality Act remains stuck in the U.S. Senate. As we’ve been discussing since February, the Senate’s filibuster rules maintain a stranglehold on Congress’ ability to legislate beyond the narrow scope of spending […]

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