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December 3, 2020 2:15 PM, EST

Democrats Eye New COVID-19 Aid

Transportation Funding Also on the Table
ManchinSen. Joe Manchin (Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg News)

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Before adjourning for the year, top Democrats on Capitol Hill are not ruling out the possibility of advancing a nearly $1 trillion COVID-19 package that includes aid for transportation networks.

Additionally, fiscal 2021 legislation that would ensure funding for federal agencies, including some $300 million for motor carrier safety programs, is yet to move forward despite the upcoming expiration of funding authority.

As for the COVID-19 package, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who for months have pushed a multitrillion dollar relief measure, were receptive to a new pandemic aid proposal backed by a bipartisan group of lawmakers.

Pelosi recently restarted negotiations with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin arrives for a House Financial Services Committee hearing on Sept. 22.

Mnuchin (Joshua Roberts/Pool via AP)

“We believe the bipartisan framework introduced by senators yesterday should be used as the basis for immediate bipartisan, bicameral negotiations. Of course, we and others will offer improvements, but the need to act is immediate and we believe that with good-faith negotiations we could come to an agreement,” Pelosi and Schumer said jointly Dec. 2.

“It is important for there to be additional funding for distribution to take the vaccine to vaccination. This distribution effort will be led by the states, further increasing the need for funding for state and local governments,” the Democrats added.

Senators, such as West Virginia’s Joe Manchin (D) and Utah’s Mitt Romney (R), unveiled a $908 billion aid measure seen as a last-minute effort to assist afflicted sectors prior to adjourning for the year. This bipartisan pitch is about half the size of a House-passed Democratic package, and about double the amount of a Senate Republican proposal.

On transportation, the proposal would dedicate $45 billion for airlines, airports, buses, transit systems and Amtrak’s operations.

“The bipartisan, bicameral framework we released [Dec. 1] is the culmination of weeks of discussion, compromise and negotiation,” said Manchin, adding, “I hope Sen. [Mitch] McConnell and [House] Minority Leader [Kevin] McCarthy will join us in these good-faith negotiations for emergency relief. The American people cannot wait any longer.”

“I don’t like spending money we don’t have, but the time to borrow money — maybe the only time to borrow money — is when there is a crisis; and this is a crisis,” said Romney. “We want to help people at this particular time, and we have come together, and we have been very careful.”

The Manchin-Romney framework also would provide $288 billion for the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, $82 billion for the country’s education system, and $16 billion for vaccine development and distribution. The Paycheck Protection Program facilitates access to forgivable loans.

Lawmakers endorsing the plan included Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.).

Notwithstanding the bipartisan proposal, since the summer congressional Republican leaders have rejected Democrats’ efforts. Senate Majority Leader McConnell, critical of Pelosi’s recent aid packages, maintains the next COVID-19 bill needs to include liability protection and additional resources for small businesses. As he recently put it: “Here in Washington, the additional relief that would help families, workers, schools, and small businesses cross the finish line has been held up for months while Democratic leaders pursued an all-or-nothing approach.”

“Let’s hope our Democratic colleagues will finally let us make law in all the enormously important areas where we do not even disagree,” McConnell added.

Besides the ongoing negotiations related to pandemic-centric relief, congressional funding leaders have yet to advance fiscal 2021 legislation that would ensure funding for federal agencies. Funding authority expires Dec. 11 and absent the enactment of a new funding bill, parts of the federal apparatus would shut down.

To fund federal agencies for the fiscal year, the Senate Appropriations Committee unveiled its bills a few weeks ago. For transportation, the Senate fiscal 2021 measure would provide the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s safety operations and programs account with $300.8 million. For FMCSA’s motor carrier safety grants, Senate appropriators proposed $391.1 million.

Their House counterparts already approved their version of the transportation funding bill.

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