Virginia senators answered the public’s questions in a virtual session on Thursday.
RICHMOND – Virginians need relief and they need it now. But how will that aid come? And why hasn’t it arrived on President Biden’s desk yet? On Thursday, Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine held a virtual town hall meeting, looking to answer those questions.
“This afternoon, we are taking the next step on moving forward with President Biden’s COVID-19 relief package. This package really has two major components. One, additional support for vaccinations, for PPE, for testing,” Warner said. “And then two, a broad series of areas of support for our economy. You have direct checks to individuals, assistance for state and local government, a lot of assistance about getting kids back in schools.”
Warner and Kaine Face Busywork
What’s holding up the package? The answer to that is 660 proposed amendments. Both senators explained that most of the proposals won’t made it into the relief bill. But each one still has to be heard.
“And part of that process requires 50 hours of debate and then kind of open season on any amendment,” Warner said. “And again, as I mentioned, many of these amendments, virtually none of these amendments will ever become law. They are more messaging.”
At 10 to 15 minutes set aside for each, Warner said those watching from home could do the math.
“As we kind of go through what’s called a vote-a-rama today, where, frankly, not a lot is going to happen over the next eight or nine hours of substance, but there’s going to be lots of amendments put up by both sides to try to kind of do ‘got you’ votes that may or may not be the most productive part of the process,” Warner said. “But this is just one step that over the next three weeks or so we’ll go through to get to the point where hopefully we will be able to pass, in some form, the president’s coronavirus relief package.”
Now to pass a bill like this, you typically need 60 votes in the Senate. With some Republicans still opposed to some COVID-19 relief, especially individual checks, getting that number seems unlikely. So instead, the Senate will use the budget reconciliation process.
“Budget reconciliation is a quirky thing. It’s a tool that’s been in the arsenal for the Senate since 1974. If you can kind of make sure that all of the pieces of it are primarily budget, rather than policy, you can pass with a simple majority,” Kaine said. “So you don’t need to get the 60 votes, to get over cloture and filibuster. But that also means that amendments can be offered and passed with a simple majority. That’s the process we’re starting now.”
Kaine guessed that 104 out of the 600-some proposed amendments would actually reach the Senate floor. Some posed the hope of help in a difficult time.
“There was a bipartisan amendment to try and put additional support into restaurants and Lord knows they have been struggling,” Warner said. “And so many restaurants I see, you know, they do outdoor dining. Then when the weather gets cold and they try to do more. But we need to do more to help that part of our economy as well as so many, you know, tourism related items as well.”
What Does President Biden’s Plan Look Like?
After noting some of the different uses of budget reconciliation in the past, by both parties, Kaine expressed that folks on both sides of the political spectrum would likely see elements they recognized.
“But when you look at the bill that’s ultimately voted on, you’re going to see not only Democratic priorities, you’re going to see that President Biden was listening to Republicans about priorities they have in their states,” Kaine said. “And our senators are doing the same.”
As for what the current version looks like, it would:
- Send $1,400 checks to eligible residents
- Increase federal unemployment aid to $400 per week
- Set aside $5 billion to help renters pay utility bills
- Provide $25 billion in rental assistance for low- and moderate-income households who have lost jobs
- Extend the federal eviction moratorium until Sept. 30.
- Extend the 15% increase in food stamp benefits through September.
- Give U.S. territories $1 billion in nutrition assistance.
- Add $15 billion to a grant program to help childcare providers cover payroll, utility costs, etc.
- Expand the child care tax credit for one year.
The senators also discussed a portion of the legislation centered around the COVID-19 vaccines.
“I’ll give credit to the Trump administration on one thing about the COVID response, which was prompted development of the vaccine,” Kaine said.
However, Kaine also noted that the Biden administration inherited a vaccine distribution plan that “was almost non-existent.” That led to some communities questioning whether or not the vaccine was first come, first serve to people in the know, which led to disparities.
“So the Biden plan that we’re debating now includes $160 billion on top of the nearly $30 billion that we just did for vaccine development and distribution in December. And that would be to support testing and tracing, deployment of vaccine, mobilizing the public health workforce to make sure we can do this,” Kaine said. “As Mark said, the president has upped it from a million a day to a million-and-a-half a day. And I think this is probably the most important part of the COVID bill.”
Kaine also noted that many Virginians in the National Guard will go into vaccine deployment following their service at the Capitol.
Relief Funds in President Biden’s Plan
One Arlington resident asked the senators about the process to determine eligibility for those potentially receiving COVID relief dollars.
“We are using, for the most part, 2019 tax returns. The challenge has been, you know, what happens if you’ve had a dramatic change in your income in 2020? If you’ve lost your job?” Warner said. “There are ways you can kind of validate your new income numbers. But this has been a bit of a cumbersome process. I’m sure Tim has heard about it as well. In the last round, some people [were] getting checks that maybe shouldn’t have. Other people [were] not getting checks. We’re going to try to improve that process in terms of check distribution, number one.”
Warner also pushed toward updating the information technology at the Internal Revenue Service.
“Our tax technology is so far behind the wall and Virginians and Americans lose out because we don’t have good enough, adequate information,” Warner said.
Amie Knowles reports for Dogwood. You can reach her at email@example.com