Healthcare. Housing. Infrastructure. Indian Country's 'status quo is in a bad spot'
A new $3 trillion Democratic-led rescue bill passed the House Friday night and includes $24 billion in funding for federally recognized tribal governments and tribal organizations.
The 208-199 vote, with all but one Republican opposed, advances what boils down to a campaign-season display of Democratic economic and health-care priorities. It has no chance of becoming law as written, but will likely spark difficult negotiations with the White House and Senate Republicans. Any product would probably be the last major COVID-19 response bill before November’s presidential and congressional elections.
The massive bill, which includes $1,200 cash payments to individuals and extends unemployment benefits, is expected to pass the House, but unlike the previous emergency bills connected to the COVID-19 pandemic, this proposal faces a serious obstacle in the Republican-led Senate.
If Congress approves, $20 billion will go to tribal governments, Indian health Service will receive $2.1 billion, the Bureau of Indian Affairs will receive $900 million, the Bureau of Indian Education will get $450 million, according to the House Natural Resources Committee. Committee Chair Raul M. Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona, shared a breakdown of the tribal provisions earlier this week.
The legislation specifically excludes Alaska Native corporations.
The new bill proposal comes when tribes are finally seeing dollars from the CARES Act passed in late March. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act allocated $8 billion to tribal governments and on May 5, the Treasury Department announced it was working to distribute $4.8 billion, or 60 percent of the $8 billion. Some tribes have since confirmed that they have received the money. It’s unclear when the remaining CARES Act money will be distributed.
Rep. Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, and a Democrat from New Mexico spoke on the floor in favor of the legislation.
"Indian Country has been hit very hard by this pandemic. Imagine getting sick and having to drive three hours just to see a doctor or to get to a phone. Imagine not having running water or electricity or public transportation," Haaland said.
“Sadly, two sisters on the Navajo Nation didn’t get the coronavirus treatment they needed in time, and they died. Their young sons will live without their mothers," she said. “Heroes come in all forms. They’re hospital workers, grocery clerks, teachers, letter carriers and people who stay home to take care of their elders and protect their communities."
Haaland said she would be voting for the measure.
“The Heroes Act provides economic stability, so we can begin the long road to economic recovery: $1,200 direct payments; hazard pay for essential workers; investments in broadband to help close the homework gap for kids; small business loans and grants that will reach underserved communities; and funds for testing, tracing and treatment of this virus," she said.
At least one tribe has shared public support for the new bill. The Cherokee Nation has urged Congress to work together to pass the bill known as the HEROES Act.
“The HEROES bill will set aside supplemental funding to help the Cherokee Nation further recover from financial losses incurred responding to COVID-19,” Principal Chief CHuck Hoskin Jr., said in a statement.
On Friday, Democratic lawmakers held a roundtable discussion with tribal organizations on the CARES Act and what the HEROES Act could potentially offer. Reps. Ruben Gallego, Deb Haaland, Matt Cartwright and Darren Soto asked a series of questions to Kevin J. Allis, National Congress of American Indians chief executive officer, Dante Desiderio, Native American Finance Officers Association executive director and National Council of Urban Indian Health President Walter Murillo.
Gallego said the HEROES Act would fix the issues with the CARES Act’s “economic limitation problems created” by the Trump Administration.
“Tribes have waited too long for this money to be released, have gone through some burdensome application processes, a fight in court to receive some relief they’re owed and we voted for,” he said.
Allis stressed flexible funding tailored uniquely for Indian Country and proper funding.
“The status quo with healthcare and infrastructure and housing in Indian Country is in a bad spot and not acceptable,” Allis said. “We can’t allow it to get worse and cause even bigger problems.”
Desiderio said capital incentives like tax credits and tax exempt debt for long term projects would make a “huge difference” in Indian Country and for organizations like his.
“We are not going to do this with just congressional funding alone, it’s never really enough,” he said.
(More information: Indian Country's COVID-19 syllabus -- Data, story summaries, lists of closures, resources)
The bill was sure to go nowhere in the Senate. Its Republican leaders have urged a “pause” to assess prior efforts and have scheduled votes on federal judicial nominees next week as the party sorts through differences between conservatives and moderates, particularly over aid to state and local governments. They are also awaiting stronger signals from President Donald Trump about what he will support.
“Not to act now is not only irresponsible in a humanitarian way, it is irresponsible because it’s only going to cost more,” warned House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. “More in terms of lives, livelihood, cost to the budget, cost to our democracy.”
The White House promised a veto of Friday’s legislation, a symbolic move because the Senate’s opposition assures it will never reach Trump.
“Phase Four is going to happen,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office, using Washington insider-speak for the measure. “But it’s going to happen in a much better way for the American people.”
The House measure amounted to Democratic opening bid in upcoming negotiations with the White House and the Senate. Previous talks were often bitterly partisan even as they produced compromises that passed by sweeping, even unanimous votes.
Trump and top Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are insisting the next measure should protect reopening businesses from liability lawsuits. The president is also demanding a cut to payroll taxes, but GOP leaders are not yet onboard.
House Democrats, meanwhile, are setting priorities like aid for student borrowers, almost $1 trillion for state and local governments confronting layoffs and service cuts, and money to help people make rent and mortgage payments and pay their utility bills.
Lawmakers have already negotiated four bipartisan efforts to pump almost $3 trillion into the economy, but the bipartisan consensus that drove those efforts is crumbling quickly. Polls show GOP voters are satisfied with the federal response so far and aren’t agitating for more. Self-branded deficit hawks are citing the massive increase in the spiraling $25 trillion national debt.
The Congressional Budget Office didn’t have time to estimate the cost of Friday's measure, which Pelosi’s office could only characterize as “more than $3 trillion.” Other offices said the total would breach $3.5 trillion or more. But a partial estimate of tax provisions alone revealed eye-popping costs — $412 billion to renew $1,200 cash payments to individuals, more than $100 billion to pay COBRA health insurance premiums for the unemployed, and $164 billion to make an “employee retention” tax credit for businesses more generous.
Trump and his GOP allies dismissed Friday’s bill as a Democratic wish list. They are pressing hard to reopen shuttered states and counties as the path to recovery rather than more safety-net measures like expanded jobless benefits.
Few Republicans were expected to vote for the bill, with party leaders preferring to pause before considering more aid. That reflects disunity between conservatives who feel enough has been done and more pragmatic lawmakers who favor steps like rescuing the Postal Service from looming insolvency, while delivering cash to revenue-starved state and local governments. The huge price tag and a lack of consultation with Republicans by Pelosi cemented GOP opposition.
“This bill is nothing more than the Democratic policy agenda masquerading as a response to the coronavirus crisis,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla. He said the bill is “going nowhere, and is going nowhere fast.”
Republicans blasted provisions like delivering $1,200 direct payments and refundable tax credits to workers living in the country illegally, giving the cannabis industry long-sought banking privileges, and mandating vote-by-mail and other election changes that arouse GOP suspicion.
Pelosi overcame some party divisions of her own, with a handful of moderate members opposing the package for being too partisan and a few progressive Democrats upset because it did not do more.
Freshman Rep. Cindy Axne, D-Iowa, facing a competitive reelection in a GOP-leaning district, labeled the measure “bloated” in a statement. Liberal Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., told reporters that if constituents ask her if the bill would put money in their pockets or preserve their health care, “I can’t tell them yes.”
Dalton Walker, Red Lake Anishinaabe, is a national correspondent at Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter - @daltonwalker
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The Associated Press contributed to this story.