COVID-19, News

N.C. Dems want more federal cash to combat hunger during pandemic

Rep. Alma Adams

More than 1 million North Carolinians would benefit from increased SNAP benefits

WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Alma Adams (D-N.C.) and other House Democrats are urging congressional leaders to prioritize food insecurity in the next round of coronavirus legislation.

She and more than 100 other lawmakers sent a letter Tuesday asking Democratic and Republican leaders of the U.S. House and Senate to boost the maximum Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefit by 15% — a request Republicans rejected in the $2 trillion coronavirus response packaged signed into law last month.

The issue is of special concern in North Carolina, where the prevalence of food insecurity is higher than the national average, according to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. About 1.5 million North Carolinians — or one in seven residents — struggle with hunger, according to Feeding America, a national hunger-relief organization.

“SNAP is one of our country’s most vital social safety nets, and it will continue to play a critical role in reducing hunger, malnutrition and poverty throughout the COVID-19 health crisis,” House lawmakers wrote.

Rep. David Price

North Carolina Rep. David Price, a Democrat, agreed. “The COVID-19 crisis is putting a financial strain on individuals and families, making it harder for many to put food on the table,” he said in a statement. “As North Carolina’s only appropriator, I’ve long advocated for nutrition programs and I strongly support … additional funding for food security programs in the next package to ensure no family falls through the cracks.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has voiced support for the effort, telling reporters last week that Democrats “did not get all that we wanted” for food and nutrition programs. “We have more needs, so we need more resources to feed the hungry.”

She called the absence of increased SNAP benefits in the last coronavirus package a “disappointment” at a news conference last month. “We were asking for a 15% increase in food stamps at this very fragile time for many families, [but] they wouldn’t do that in this bill.”

During the 2009 recession, Congress boosted the maximum benefit to $1.74 per person per meal, and Congress “must make a similar investment” now, Democratic lawmakers wrote.

A spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) did not respond to requests for comment.

Pelosi has outlined a fourth “recovery” package that she said would focus on immediate needs, such as assistance for ailing small businesses, expanded insurance for people who have lost their jobs, and more money for individuals and families in the form of direct payments, according to Politico.

Price said at a virtual town hall meeting on Tuesday that expanding SNAP benefits should be a priority in the next coronavirus response bill. “It’s a struggle,” he said. “Families are trying to put food on the table. It gets harder as this crisis goes on.”

Such a bill could come up for a vote when the House is slated to reconvene later this month. It would build on three other coronavirus response packages, including the economic stimulus package signed into law late last month.  Read more

COVID-19, News

Breaking: Congress clears 2nd major coronavirus package; 3rd in the works

Image: Adobe Stock

WASHINGTON — A second major coronavirus package cleared the U.S. Senate Wednesday and is now headed to President Donald Trump for his signature.

The bill passed 90-8, with overwhelming bipartisan support. The multi-billion dollar measure aims to slow the spread of a new coronavirus and stimulate the economy as a major recession looms. Both North Carolina senators, Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, voted “yes.”

The package would provide free access to tests for the virus, including for those without health insurance. It would also give workers affected by the virus temporary paid sick leave, boost unemployment benefits, strengthen government food programs for children, older people and those with low incomes; and help states meet expenses for Medicaid, the government insurance program for the poor.

“It is aimed at making it easier for people to socially distance themselves,” Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) said in an interview.

Trump indicated his support for the bill last week. But it hit a political snag over the weekend, delaying final passage as social distancing measures set in and as the hospitality, entertainment, travel and other major industries ground to a halt.

After intense negotiations with the White House last week, the U.S. House passed a version of the bill early Saturday morning. The Senate was expected to take it up Monday, but objections to paid sick leave provisions delayed passage.

Several senators sought to amend the bill during Wednesday’s floor debate, including a failed effort by GOP Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin to strip out the paid leave provision and replace it with a new unemployment insurance fund for people affected by the pandemic.

The legislation comes after Trump signed an $8.3 billion measure earlier this month funding research, treatment, vaccines and personal protective equipment for health care workers.

‘Bold, bipartisan action’

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) took to the Senate floor Wednesday to pledge further action. Senators are developing proposals to help individuals, families and small businesses weather financial challenges in the weeks and months ahead and strengthen the health care system and support its medical professionals, he said earlier this week.

The price tag could reach $1 trillion or more to cover loans, direct payments to individuals and corporate access to capital, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Tuesday afternoon. “The president wants to put money in the economy now,” he said.

Senate Republicans and Mnuchin were mapping the contours of Bill No. 3 early this week, and McConnell pledged to keep the Senate in session until it passes. Details are still taking shape, but The New York Times reported Wednesday that the administration is considering $500 billion in direct payments to U.S. taxpayers and $300 billion to help small businesses meet payroll.

The discussions came amid the administration’s decision this week to allow taxpayers to defer for 90 days income tax payments on up to $1 million that were due next month.

“This is a moment for bold and bipartisan action,” McConnell said Tuesday. The bill passed Wednesday can “only be the beginning” of the federal government’s response to the crisis.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) also called for bold federal action in response to the crisis. Read more

COVID-19, News

U.S. House passes coronavirus response bill; 40 Republicans (including two from NC) dissent

WASHINGTON — The U.S. House voted Saturday to approve an emergency stimulus package to combat the coronavirus pandemic after President Donald Trump signaled his support for the bill.

The multi-billion dollar package aims to slow the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by a new coronavirus, and mitigate its economic effects as fears of recession loom.

The bill — the Families First Coronavirus Response Act — passed 363-40, with overwhelming bipartisan support. The 40 votes against the bill were all Republicans and included two North Carolina representatives, Dan Bishop and Ted Budd. The House’s only independent lawmaker, Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, voted “present” on the bill. Another 26 lawmakers, including North Carolina’s Mark Meadows, who has been in self-quarantine, did not vote.

Passage came hours after President Trump declared a national emergency over the pandemic, freeing up as much as $50 billion to help the country weather the pandemic and waiving restrictions on health providers and facilities.

The House bill would provide free access to tests for the virus, including for those without health insurance. It would also give workers affected by the virus paid family and sick leave, boost unemployment benefits, strengthen government food programs for children, older people and those with low incomes and help states meet expenses for Medicaid, the government insurance program for the poor.

“The three most important parts of this bill are testing, testing, testing,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a news conference ahead of the vote. “We can only defeat this outbreak if we have an accurate determination of its scale and scope so that we can pursue the precise, science-based response that is necessary.”

Pelosi was engaged in intense negotiations over the bill with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and congressional Republicans ahead of the vote. Trump tweeted his support for the measure ahead of its passage.

“I fully support H.R. 6201: Families First CoronaVirus Response Act,” he wrote. “I encourage all Republicans and Democrats to come together and VOTE YES! … Look forward to signing the final Bill, ASAP!”

The legislation will now move to the Senate, which is expected to take it up next week.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) tweeted Thursday that the Senate would cancel its scheduled recess next week to consider “bipartisan” stimulus legislation.

McConnell said Thursday the package Pelosi introduced earlier this week didn’t not meet that standard, calling it “an ideological wish list” on the Senate floor.

But he signaled in a statement Saturday that Senate passage of the final bill was likely. “Of course, Senators will need to carefully review the version just passed by the House. But I believe the vast majority of Senators in both parties will agree we should act swiftly to secure relief for American workers, families, and small businesses,” McConnell said.

In a letter sent Thursday to members of the House, Pelosi urged quick congressional action as schools and businesses shut down and shifted online to slow the spread of the virus.

“Time is of the essence,” she wrote. “During this time of crisis, the strong and steady leadership of our members working together is urgently needed.”

On Friday, CDC’s website cited 1,629 confirmed and presumptive positive coronavirus cases in the United States, and 41 deaths caused by the virus. The CDC reported that COVID-19 had been reported in 46 states and Washington, D.C.

Trump signed an $8.3 billion spending package last week to combat the virus, and Pelosi said the House is poised to take up a third emergency response bill soon. Also last week, House lawmakers rebuffed a Trump administration request to cut funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention amid the coronavirus crisis.

States Newsroom reporter Robin Bravender contributed to this report. 


U.S. House votes to remove ERA obstacle


Congress is talking about paid family leave. Will they do anything?

WASHINGTON — Democrats and Republicans in Congress seem to agree on expanding access to paid family leave.

But they disagree on how to do it.

U.S. House lawmakers debated three bills on Capitol Hill this week that would take dramatically different approaches to expanding access to paid leave, with Democrats and Republicans deeply divided on the best approach.

Congress is diving into the issue as polls show that most Americans support paid family and medical leave for all workers.

The United States lags far behind the rest of the world when it comes to paid leave for new parents — it’s one of only two countries in the United Nations with no statutory national policy of paid maternity leave.

Many Democrats in Congress are pushing for the FAMILY Act, which would provide all workers with family and medical leave insurance.

Under the bill, workers would be eligible for 60 days or 12 weeks of partial income for the birth or adoption of a child, or the injury or illness of a family member. The program would be funded through a payroll tax of 2 cents for every $10 of wages.

More than 200 House Democrats (including North Carolina’s Alma Adams, G.K. Butterfield and David Price) have signed on to the bill, as has one Republican.

Some Republicans, meanwhile, are championing different proposals.

The New Parents Act would allow parents to draw on a portion of their Social Security benefits after the birth or adoption of a child in exchange for delaying or reducing future Social Security benefits. It is backed by 10 Republicans (though none from North Carolina) and no Democrats in the House.

A bipartisan bill, the Advancing Support for Working Families Act, would allow families to draw on child tax credits for a year after the birth or adoption of a child. The bill has the support of five Republicans and three Democrats in the House.

Companion measures have been introduced in the Senate: the Family Act, the New Parents Act, and the Advancing Support for Working Families Act. Neither Senators Richard Burr nor Thom Tillis have signed on to any of the proposals.

While House lawmakers agreed over the general need for paid family leave, they sparred over which plan would best benefit workers and the economy.

Republicans called the FAMILY Act a “one-size-fits-all” government mandate.

It’s “one more tax” on employees and employers, said Florida Republican Rep. Vern Buchanan, who voiced support for a tax credit instead.

Conservatives also argued that small businesses should be able to customize benefits packages to meet unique needs and said it could unfairly burden stay-at-home caregivers and people without children.

Democrats, meanwhile, praised the FAMILY Act for its economic benefits and expressed concerns over proposals that would cut worker benefits and leave people uncovered during times of emergency.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal of Massachusetts cited a study finding that a median-earning new mother who took paid leave after the birth of two children would get $11,000 in paid leave benefits but $29,000 less in Social Security benefits under the GOP proposal.

The FAMILY Act directly addresses the “two key ingredients” in gross domestic product — workforce participation and worker productivity, said Rep. Ron Kind, a Wisconsin Democrat. “This is important for the male workforce as well,” he said, noting that it would support men’s childrearing and family caregiving responsibilities.

‘Closer than ever’

Despite their disagreements over details, lawmakers of both parties were optimistic about progress. Read more