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Grassley: Coronavirus aid compromise within reach

Iowa’s senior senator visits CFR in Fort Dodge

-Messenger photo by Elijah Decious
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, tours with Michelle De La Riva, executive director of Community & Family Resources, during a Fort Dodge visit Thursday.

U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley said finding a compromise between Republicans and Democrats on the next coronavirus aid package from Congress is still within reach, even after difficult negotiations between congressional and White House leaders have invoked anxiety among many Americans financially depending on their next move.

“It could be done in one more meeting if you got a consensus,” he said Thursday during a Fort Dodge visit at Community & Family Resources, a stop on his latest 99-county tour.

Though he couldn’t predict how long that would take, he believes getting it done with one more meeting is realistic, under the right circumstances. With negotiations on about five sections of demands from both parties reconciling the $1 trillion HEALS Act passed by the Republican-majority Senate with the $3 trillion Heroes Act passed by the Democratic-majority House of Representatives, Grassley estimated that upwards of 15 hours has been spent at the table so far.

“As of last Friday, there wasn’t a breakthrough,” he said.

Grassley, a Republican, said the two major points of contention in passing the successor to the $2.2 trillion CARES Act in March were unemployment benefits and aid for lost revenue to state and local governments struggling to balance their books.

The HEALS Act would initially give those receiving unemployment a boost of $200 per week through September, then increase the federal supplement to 70% of one’s lost wages when added to existing state benefits, up to $500.

That’s a substantial cut from the $600 per week that unemployed Americans were receiving through the end of July, which Democrats would like to extend to January. Grassley said for two-thirds of those on unemployment, it’s a disincentive to return to work, making the federal government an unfair competitor to local businesses.

“We figure $400 is a proper compromise, but (House Speaker Nancy Pelosi) doesn’t agree with that,” he said.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order over the weekend as tense negotiations with Congress came to a standstill after blowing through self-imposed deadlines. The order stipulated $300 per week as a federal supplement to those on unemployment, and another optional $100 per week to be paid by states, at their discretion. It’s unclear how the $300 will be funded, and Iowa leaders say they are still awaiting guidance on how to implement the new measures.

“The president did the three things that he could do because he can’t do everything that (Congress is) doing,” Grassley said, noting that the executive order on a flashpoint in negotiations wouldn’t preempt progress toward a compromise.

As for state and local government aid, for which Democrats hope to appropriate $950 billion to keep cities, towns and states afloat amid lost tax revenue, Grassley indicated Senate Republicans are willing to compromise “if that’s what it takes,” despite the long bridge between that figure and their $150 billion figure.

“We’re just kind of pulling numbers out of the blue sky, and it’s not a good way to make policy,” he said of Democratic leaders’ approach to the aid package.

Grassley said Senate Republicans, who did not appropriate any aid to state and local governments in the bill they put forward, would prefer leftover aid to fight COVID-19 from the last aid package to be redirected first to help those struggling governments. States would have discretion to direct those funds as they see fit, so long as 25% goes to local governments.

But even though the HEALS Act does not appropriate any extra funding to state and local governments, Grassley said “there’s enough agreement between the Senate and the White House (that) we’d put another $150 billion into that.”

The senior senator said plenty of agreement exists on other areas of the bills, such as education and agriculture funding, bolstering hope to bridge the wide discrepancy between the liberal and conservative aid plans.

But even looking at the common ground of discussions, Grassley has remained critical of the inclusion of things Republicans see as less relevant, such as “the federalization of election laws” in the Heroes Act that requires states to produce federal election contingency plans explaining how they will meet safety requirements and recruit poll works. The bill includes $3.6 billion in funding for states to support the “planning, preparation and resilience of elections” as the pandemic continues to pose a threat to public health.

Grassley said the other side of the aisle will have to “give up on that,” characterizing the plan as impractical.

And on Thursday, as Iowa surpassed 50,000 COVID-19 cases and maintained a higher number of cases, per capita, than all six of its surrounding neighbors, Grassley said the only practical thing Iowa can do to get the virus under control is simply listen to modern science and follow the advice of public health and medical experts.

“I think the reason we’d have a higher number of cases is because of packing plants,” he said. “We’re third-highest in senior citizens, so we probably have more people in nursing homes. Half of the deaths are from nursing homes.”

But while wearing a face mask, he stopped short of saying that a mandate for public use would help. Gov. Kim Reynolds has resisted calls for a public mask mandate as Iowa has become one of a small minority of states with absolutely no requirements.

“There’s a lot of states where they’ve mandated them, but they don’t enforce them, so what’s the difference?” Grassley said.

Meanwhile, Community & Family Resources has its own concerns as it works through the coronavirus. With increased isolation during the pandemic, Executive Director Michelle De La Riva said that even those who wouldn’t normally drink or abuse substances have started to do so more often.

“We know people are drinking and using more now,” she said.

And with a residential treatment center, the lack of caution many exercise for their health — including the choice not to wear a mask — concerns her as the threat of the virus spreading through the facility continues to loom. As a healthcare provider, she said public mask requirements would be helpful in that regard.

Other CFR concerns expressed to the senator included broadband access, particularly as telehealth becomes more of a norm to access psychiatric and behavioral healthcare.

As some drive to various parking lots to find the nearest free wi-fi, the director remains concerned about the social isolation that goes along with increased reliance on telehealth and phone conversations for therapy.

“Therapy is all about relationships, so it’s really hard to make a relationship over the phone,” she said.

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