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Lawmakers brace for relief battle

Political Notebook

Members of Congress are drawing hard lines over future monetary aid to Americans, whose beefed-up unemployment payments are set to expire, and officials seeking to stave off a wave of evictions.

Senate Republicans have detailed some of their plans for a relief bill, set for release in the coming week. But they’re on course to clash with House Democrats, who hope to keep — and in some cases, expand — pandemic aid.

“We’ve already spent $3 trillion,” Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., told Fox News last week, suggesting future relief plans would have to be pared down. “For us to load the money cannon again and say, ‘Let’s spend literally trillions more,’ that’s a tough sell.”

The debate comes with a sense of urgency. About 1.4 million Americans submitted unemployment claims last week, according to federal data, and millions more have been unemployed throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Those workers have been entitled to an extra $600 per week since Congress passed its first relief package, but those benefits are about to expire.

Many of those people have been protected so far from the worst effects of unemployment, including eviction and home foreclosure. That same federal aid package protected the roughly one-third of renters whose homes have government-backed mortgages from eviction, but that protection, too, is expiring.

State and local governments have stepped in to close the gap. Gov. Tom Wolf announced an order earlier this month barring evictions and foreclosures until Aug. 31.

Even with those stopgap protections, however, Democratic lawmakers have warned of dangerous effects if new aid isn’t approved.

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., called this week for additional funds to fight COVID-19 among older nonwhite Americans, who have been particularly hard-hit. He also joined colleagues in calling for more funds for local governments, many of which face severe budget shortfalls and potential cuts to services.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters she is entering negotiations “with a commitment for the $600” in extra unemployment money. Republicans have argued that the expanded aid should be cut, so workers stuck at home amid the pandemic don’t get too comfortable.

“We are very clear on we’re not going to pay people more to stay home than to work,” Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said this week.

With no Senate bill in place yet, there are no guarantees on the upcoming relief debate.

Republicans rejected a payroll tax cut — a plan heavily promoted by President Donald Trump — with some, like Toomey, arguing that the small savings for workers would be outweighed by the long-term fiscal effects and hits to Social Security.

Officials and GOP lawmakers also said the new bill will include another $1,200 check sent to every American earning up to $75,000 per year.

Any Senate bill could face a tough fight in the House. The last House proposal, passed in May in a largely partisan vote, included larger cash payments for dependents, funding to help the U.S. Postal Service and more aid to cities and local governments.

GOP lawmakers balked at the time: Rep. John Joyce, R-13th District, called the plan in May a “wish list of political poison pills.”

Whether a new COVID-19 surge and the prospect of mass evictions changes that list remains to be seen.

Congress strips Confederate honors

Local members of Congress backed a sweeping defense spending bill this week that would rename military bases named for Confederate officers — a move opposed by Trump — but they remained divided on removing Confederate statues in the Capitol.

Lawmakers have made the changes amid ongoing Black Lives Matter protests, which have led to police reforms as well as more symbolic victories. Many cities have removed monuments and markers commemorating Confederate officials and slaveholders, and the push has now extended to the halls of Congress.

Two defense spending bills, one passed this week in the House and one in the Senate, would pump hundreds of billions of dollars into military programs. But one provision, set to rename military bases, has angered the president.

Trump has defended the names of bases like Fort Bragg, the North Carolina Army facility named for Confederate General Braxton Bragg.

The House version passed in a 295-125 vote, with Joyce and Rep. Glenn “G.T.” Thompson, R-15th District, in favor. In a news release, Joyce praised the bill’s raises for servicemembers and funding to combat the Chinese military; he did not mention the renaming provision.

The House vote is enough to overcome a potential veto by the president.

A separate Senate bill passed 86-14, with Casey and Toomey voting in favor. The two bills must still be reconciled.

Another resolution, passed Wednesday in the House, removes statues of Confederate officials, white supremacists and slaveholders from the House. The resolution passed 305-113 with support from both parties.

While Joyce voted in favor, Thompson was among those — including many representatives from Southern states — who opposed it.

In other news:

n Casey joined fellow senators Thursday in questioning the use of uniformed federal agents to quell Black Lives Matter and related protests in American cities. In a joint letter, the senators demanded answers from the Department of Justice on the use of militarized federal police to attack protesters in Portland, with the president expanding their deployment to “dominate” protesters.

n A new Fox News poll shows Democratic candidate Joe Biden up 11 points over Trump in Pennsylvania. Released Thursday, the poll shows high favorability for Biden and slumping support for the president in the state, a key battleground in November.

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