Here's the scoop on what's happening this week in Congress
The nation turned its attention to the Senate this week as it considered the Biden administration’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan following passage in House late last week (H.R. 1319) – that same day the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted emergency use authorization for Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine – now the third authorized vaccination in the U.S. but unique because it requires only one dose.
Nancy Pelosi, in her Thursday (March 4th) morning press conference highlighted expected changes to the COVID relief bill as the bill continues to work its way through the Senate and through the open-ended “vote-a-rama” process allowing senators to present amendments before the package returns to the House for second-round consideration.
The Biden administration has promoted – at least rhetorically – the need for new era of enhanced bipartisanship. But the GOP and Senate Republicans are criticizing the Biden administration and Dem leadership for excluding them from current negotiations. Democrats needed every vote in its 50-person caucus and VP Harris’s tiebreaking vote to advance the critical measure in time and prior to the upcoming March 14 expiration of formerly expanded COVID-relief measures.
Indeed, pushback from some moderate Dems over certain progressive elements of the legislation coupled with the need to speed up the timing of passage has led to a narrowing of certain popular provisions including the formulaic calculation determining which Americans will receive the $1,400 stimulus check payments.
The president agreed to rework the eligibility formula, individuals who make up to $75,000 per year or couples who make up to $150,000 per year will still receive a $1,400 check. The Senate bill will phase out the checks much quicker than previous relief measures in the past year:
NCSD remains attuned to ongoing debate and negotiations in Congress and will continue to provide updates as the relief legislation advances.
All eyes turned to the Senate Parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough at the beginning of the week in anticipation of her ruling as to whether the $15 minimum wage provision within the Biden administration’s COVID-relief legislation would pass scrutiny and advance under the Senate’s cumbersome budget reconciliation rules. The Senate Parliamentarian is the chief procedural expert and rules advisor to the presiding officer in the Senate. MacDonough, a lawyer and the first and only women to hold the parliamentarian post (a role she has held since 2012) released a decree ruling that the minimum wage increase could not be included in the COVID-19 relief bill – a decision the Biden administration described as “disappointing” but that Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) highlighted would make passage of the relief legislation “less complicated.”
The $15/hour proposal has already drawn significant tension in both Chambers between moderates and progressives within the Democratic Party.
The Biden administration’s newly created COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force – which was announced on President Biden’s second day of office – met for the first-time last Friday afternoon. In addition to the Task Force’s appointed Co-Chair Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, the meeting’s participants included a list of experts and compelling presentations calling for a novel data collection campaign surveying geographical, educational, insurance coverage-related, and occupational factors, among others. Mr. Daniel Dawes, Director of the Morehouse School of Medicine’s Satcher Health Leadership Institute spoke during the event and reiterated concerns over the current public health system’s lack of access to critical data sources to even assess the true scope of need to appropriately meet the preexisting and pandemic-compounded challenges. Dawes called for the construction of a more robust and equitable national public health infrastructure – via a program established under the CDC – with modernized data collection capacities carried out by more trained personnel who serve in the communities they already call home.
In the past three weeks the CDC has awarded more than $17 million to various organizations – including grants for 15 organizations like UnidosUS and the National Urban League (receiving $3.2 million and $ million, respectively) advocating for Black, Hispanic, Asian and native Americans.
The State of California announced its intent to set aside 40 percent of its vaccines for underserved communities. The announcement followed reports from government officials in L.A. County “exposing” that wealthier people were better able to take advantage of the vaccination appointment system.
Life Expectancy and Mortality: Last week the United States hit a tragic milestone surpassing 500,000 COVID-19 deaths since the pandemic’s onset one year ago. While deaths and hospitalizations are beginning to significantly decline, the United States still hosts 1/5 of all global COVID-19-related deaths. And despite public health expert warnings, states are beginning to ease COVID-19 restrictions. Texas and Mississippi, for example, issued separate executive orders lifting mask mandates and giving businesses the green light to reopen at 100 percent capacity. The milestone came around the same time the CDC released its provisional estimates exposing that the U.S. has experienced a one-year decline in its population’s life expectancy from 78.8 years in 2019 to 77.9 years. The decline impacts minority communities at greater rates than white Americans with a 2.7-year decline for Black Americans and a decline of 1.9-years for Hispanic Americans.
As of this week, a majority (55 percent) of adults in the U.S. have received at least one dose of the COVID vaccine. This news was included in a new study released by the Kaiser Family Foundation which also highlights increased enthusiasm for vaccinations and less hesitancy across racial and ethnic groups. Despite the positive news, vaccination disparities still exist. As of Feb. 22, 65 percent of the 19 million individuals that had been fully vaccinated were white.
Nearly two months after the Jan. 6th Capitol Riots, on Thursday, the House canceled session after increased warnings from law enforcement on the possibility of a militia group-led attack at the U.S. Capitol by supporters of the former president. Alternatively, the Senate did not similarly cancel and met on Thursday to consider the coronavirus relief package (H.R. 1319). The forgone session comes as new statistics are being released by FBI officials demonstrating that, for example, from 2017-2020 there has been more than a 120 percent increase in terroristic threats to government officials and representatives in the United States.