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Failed vote leaves dim relief hopes

Political notebook

A failed attempt at a scaled-down relief bill — the latest effort to secure funds amid the coronavirus pandemic — left Congress at an impasse Thursday, leaving a hodgepodge of state and federal policies to support those hit hardest.

Pennsylvania’s senators were split Thursday when a Republican-backed relief bill failed to get the 60 votes it needed. While the bill would pump hundreds of billions of dollars into affected agencies like the U.S. Postal Service, it would have halved the $600-per-week benefit previously given to unemployed workers.

“Today’s vote was another bad faith effort by Republicans, who refused to engage in meaningful and bipartisan negotiations all summer,” U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said on Twitter. “This proposal fails to meet the needs of workers and families who have been struggling for months.”

Casey listed a range of needs that would go unmet by the GOP bill, which did not include another round of $1,200-per-person stimulus checks that many in Congress have demanded.

“It has no support for food assistance, no relief for renters facing eviction, no funding for state and local governments which are laying off employees because the federal government isn’t helping them,” Casey said.

Nearly every Senate Republican backed the bill, including U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa.

Few expected the relief bill to pass — and even if it had, it would have been a far cry from the larger bill already passed by the Democratic-controlled House. The House bill, which included trillions of dollars’ worth of relief for individuals as well as local governments and agencies like the Postal Service, passed in May over opposition from Republicans like U.S. Rep. John Joyce, R-13th District, and U.S. Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-15th District.

Senate Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., seemed to acknowledge the failed Senate bill’s other purpose: turning the blame to those who voted against the so-called “skinny” relief effort on Thursday.

“They can tell American families they care more about politics than helping them,” he said.

With chances of another relief bill dimming — despite high unemployment and business still scaled down in many states — Pennsylvanians are left with a patchwork of policies to soften the blow.

An order by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this month effectively banned most evictions for nonpayment of rent through the end of the year, potentially protecting tens of millions of at-risk renters.

President Donald Trump ordered some emergency funds to be shifted toward beefed-up unemployment benefits last month, although money for the $300-per-week payments could run out soon.

Maryland sues

to push Pa. policies

The last time Pennsylvania and Maryland fought over the rivers emptying into the Chesapeake Bay, a war broke out and King George II of England had to negotiate a peace.

That was in the 1730s. Times have changed: The battles are now resolved in courts, and they’re being fought over environmental rules, not lines on a map.

The latest fight has raised the stakes, with Maryland filing a lawsuit Thursday to push federal regulators into action against its northern neighbor.

Maryland’s government, joined by environmental and outdoor groups, claims Pennsylvania and New York have failed to reduce pollution that drains from farms and cities into the Susquehanna River watershed and the Chesapeake Bay. Nitrogen and phosphorus in the water — partly the product of agriculture in areas as far west as Blair and Cambria counties — kills life in the bay, environmental groups say.

While Pennsylvania municipal governments and farmers have acted to cut back on that runoff, Maryland’s government noted that the federal Environmental Protection Agency is allowing the state to fall far short of its goals.

Pennsylvania has only reached about three-fourths of its goals, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation officials said in a news release announcing the latest lawsuit. And the state has allegedly underfunded recovery efforts by hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

Maryland’s government threatened Pennsylvania with direct lawsuits early this year — threats that drew an irritated response from Gov. Tom Wolf’s representatives, who cited GOP obstruction.

The new effort would instead compel the EPA to enforce its rules against Pennsylvania.

“The Chesapeake Bay is a national treasure, and clean water is essential to our region’s health, economy, outdoor heritage and quality of life,” the Chesapeake Bay Foundation said. “If we want to save the Bay and leave a legacy of clean water to future generations, we must hold EPA accountable now.”

Lawmakers fight pollution effort

On another environmental front, Senate Republicans passed an effort Wednesday to effectively stop Wolf from joining a regional greenhouse gas initiative.

Some Senate Democrats joined Republican colleagues, including state Rep. Wayne Langerholc, R-Cambria, and state Rep. Judy Ward, R-Blair, in a 33-17 vote to limit Wolf’s powers. The bill would require lawmakers’ approval before Wolf could join regional initiatives to reduce pollution.

Wolf joined the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a multistate effort to cut back on the airborne pollutants, in October, drawing criticism from Republicans who claimed the effort would shut down fossil fuel power plants in the state.

The latest effort to stop him passed the House 130-71 in July, with most local lawmakers supporting it.

While the lopsided votes represent a rebuke to Wolf’s environmental plans, they fall short of the number needed to override Wolf’s veto. The governor has already said he will veto the bill.

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