House Democrats seeking automatic relief triggers in next bill
House Democrats are preparing a coronavirus relief bill that might include triggers to extend aid automatically based on economic conditions.
The clearest sign of momentum for the plan came Thursday, when Speaker Nancy Pelosi endorsed the idea at her weekly news conference. Providing for what lawmakers have dubbed "stabilizers" would keep relief programs running if conditions warrant without Congress having to repeatedly supply new funding.
"We think that there should be stabilizers in these bills," the California Democrat said when asked if a relief measure her caucus is drafting would further expand unemployment insurance benefits. "So if the unemployment rate, say now it's up at 7 percent, it triggers 26 weeks of unemployment benefits."
The New Democrat Coalition, a group of more moderate House Democrats, has been pushing leadership for months now to include automatic stabilizers in economic relief legislation. But Pelosi's comments on the matter Thursday marked the first time she has publicly weighed in on the idea.
She did not explicitly promise that the package Democrats are drafting would include automatic stabilizers but rather presented it as one option that the caucus is discussing. Still, her expression of support for the idea increases the likelihood that some could make it into the measure.
In addition to unemployment benefits, Pelosi said automatic stabilizers could be used for other relief like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, informally known as food stamps, and federal Medicaid reimbursement rates, known as Federal Medical Assistance Percentages, "so that you don't always have to say, 'Let's debate whether that's necessary.'"
So far, however, Republican leaders have resisted a push for stabilizers. "I don't believe we need that," House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said last month. If and when additional aid is needed, he said, "Congress can act."
Including triggers for automatic aid extensions could increase the price tag of any upcoming relief measure, since aid would not be limited to a specific period of time. And Republicans have begun expressing concern about rising deficits after passing nearly $3 trillion in pandemic relief.
Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., have indicated they may bring the pending Democratic package up for a vote as soon as next week since Republicans appear to be in no rush to negotiate a bipartisan bill. But Pelosi on Thursday did not commit to the House voting on the partisan plan. Lindsey McPherson has the full story here.
The bottom line: Aid might flow automatically -- and prove more costly -- if Democrats have their way.
Aid flexibility push for the states falls short
A quick attempt to give states greater flexibility in their use of coronavirus aid didn't get far Thursday.
Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., offered a bill on the floor (S 3608) designed to help states make up for revenue shortfalls suffered during the pandemic's economic shutdown. Congress provided $150 billion in aid to states and localities in March (PL 116-136) but restricted its use to direct coronavirus relief efforts.
"My bill would just say they can use that money for operating expenses," Kennedy said on the floor. "They can't use it to bail out any retirement systems, mismanaged or otherwise."
Republican leaders have pushed this week to give states greater flexibility on already appropriated aid while Democrats seek a new round of relief to state and local governments that could amount to at least $750 billion. Kennedy said his bill "may well moot the issue of having to appropriate brand new money for states and local governments."
But Kennedy faced opposition from within his own party as he sought unanimous consent to take up his bill. Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., objected to the request, saying the bill could "siphon resources away" from pandemic relief efforts.
"I'm unfortunately hearing that some states and localities would simply like to use federal dollars to backfill their decades of fiscal mismanagement," Scott said. "Hardworking American taxpayers should not be on the hook to bail out poorly run states or to fund areas of state budget expenses that have nothing to do with coronavirus."
But backers of the flexibility drive will likely get another shot. A bipartisan group of six senators, including Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska., and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., have introduced a similar bill to let state and local governments make up for revenue shortfalls.
House Coronavirus Select Committee selected
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy named the Republican members of the House Select Committee on the Coronavirus, CQ Roll Call's Chris Marquette reports. Minority Whip Steve Scalise and Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio, Blaine Luetkemeyer of Missouri, Jackie Walorski of Indiana and Mark E. Green of Tennessee will serve on the panel. Green has stirred controversy in the past for alluding to "anti-vaxx" conspiracies in public statements, which he subsequently walked back.
Questions about billions in healthcare provider relief
When Congress approved $175 billion in pandemic relief for healthcare providers, it intended the money to abate the costs of COVID-19, two top Democrats wrote in a letter to Department of Health and Human Services leadership Thursday. But the Trump administration has distributed the first $50 billion according to a formula.
"The Administration's efforts to establish the Provider Relief Fund to date has been at best, a series of missteps, and at worst, a disregard of Congress' intent for the program," they write. Committee on Energy and Commerce Frank Pallone Jr. and the Committee on Ways and Means Richard E. Neal are asking for more transparency regarding the payments.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published data Wednesday showing which providers have received the most in payments. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services pegged the first $30 billion tranche to last year's Medicare spending. CMS limited the second $20 billion in spending to providers that have received a payment from the first tranche. "As such, providers either received two distributions of funding, or none at all," they write.
Advocates for long term care facilities say 5 percent of the first $30 billion allocation went to nursing homes and assisted living facilities, which have been hard hit by the virus.
HHS requires recipients to show their publicly provided funds will only be directed to healthcare related expenses or lost revenue due to the pandemic, but it's not clear how that rule is being enforced, according to the letter.