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U.S. Reps. McGovern, Neal detail pros, cons of relief bill

December 25, 2020
In The News

As Congress waits for President Donald Trump’s signature on a COVID-19 stimulus and spending bill, the region’s congressional delegation is describing the relief bill as an imperfect but necessary compromise.

The stimulus package, which Congress combined with appropriations to fund the federal government this coming year, includes $600 payments to individuals making less than $75,000, 11 weeks of a $300 enhancement to federal unemployment benefits, more money for the small-business Paycheck Protection Program, funding for schools, funding for vaccine distribution and more.

However, the bill also includes some $200 billion in tax breaks for the wealthy and does not include direct aid to struggling state and local governments.

For U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Worcester, the bill wasn’t big enough and contained some provisions he is unhappy with. He said negotiations with the Republicans, who don’t share the same values as Democrats, made the process difficult.

“We have something that has more good in it than not,” McGovern said. “I think it will help, but it’s a down payment. We will have to come back when Biden is president and build on it. … I look at this bill as a bridge.”

That echoes similar sentiments that McGovern shared in late March, when the U.S. House passed a $2 trillion stimulus package.

Back in the spring, he also lamented the failure to increase benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. In the current bill, though, SNAP benefits — formerly known as food stamps — were boosted by 15 percent, and money was allocated to food banks and Meals on Wheels.

“The nutrition part of this bill in part is particularly important to people who are going hungry right now,” McGovern said. “It is a strong portion of this bill that we have had to fight tooth and nail for. … I want that preserved and we have to then build on that.”

McGovern noted that the U.S. House passed a more generous $3 trillion bill, known as the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, seven months ago but saw no desire to negotiate from Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. McGovern said that is the cost of divided government.

“This is a negotiation that involved a lot of give and take,” he said, noting that there are things he dislikes that made it into the combined appropriations-stimulus bill. “I think the defense spending is too high, I think there are some giveaways to corporate interests that quite frankly don’t need it. It’s more greed rather than need. … It’s the best we can get with the people we’re working with right now.”

The bill passed the House and Senate, but was thrown into uncertainty when Trump criticized the $600 direct payments to individuals, calling for larger $2,000 checks. Democrats were quick to note they supported that increase and had called for larger checks from the beginning.

“We’ve spent months fighting for increased direct payments to save the lives and livelihoods of the American people,” U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, said in a tweet Wednesday. He added a message to McConnell: “Let’s get this done.”

Neal, chair of the Ways and Means Committee, held a press conference in Springfield on Tuesday about the bill, but was unavailable for an interview Wednesday. In a statement earlier in the week, he described the agreement as one that “isn’t perfect,” but that provides needed support to struggling families, workers and businesses.

On Thursday, Neal released a subsequent statement after House Republicans blocked approval of the CASH Act, legislation Neal introduced that would increase the amount of money Americans receive in a second round of direct payments to $2,000.

“If not for congressional Republicans, $2,000 checks would be heading to Americans in need. Instead, on this Christmas Eve morning, Minority Leader (Kevin) McCarthy directly undermined President Trump and led the charge to block this crucial relief from reaching millions of families,” Neal said in the statement. “This heartless obstruction comes at a time when folks across the country are wondering how they’ll put food on the table and cover next month’s rent payment. Democrats will continue to fight to provide Americans with the substantial support they require to make ends meet during the ongoing COVID crisis.”

Thursday’s vote left the future of the $900 billion stimulus package — and whether any changes will be added to it — in doubt. Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that Democrats will now move to pass the bill on the floor with a full up-or-down vote on Monday, Dec. 28.

Under the bill, Neal highlighted, community health centers will have dedicated funding for three years, and an employee retention tax credit offers 70 percent credit on up to $10,000 of wages per employee per quarter to help businesses keep them on the payroll. He also noted that New Market Tax Credits were given a five-year extension at $5 billion per year — a program meant to drive investment in economically disadvantaged areas.

“We also made sure that the legislation includes key measures that will help us combat the public health emergency and save lives,” Neal said. “Until we effectively address the virus and people are safe, our economy cannot fully recover.”

Another priority of Neal’s was in the bill: his version of a fix for surprise medical billing.

Critics have accused Neal of long blocking earlier fixes that would have used an industry benchmark to determine rates that doctors and hospitals could charge out-of-network patients, pointing to Neal’s acceptance of corporate campaign contributions from industries that preferred a different fix that would send insurers and providers to arbitration over those bills.

In the end, Neal’s version ended up prevailing, which he said was a victory for consumers and health care providers alike.