Senate vote pending; $8 billion for tribes, $2 billion for agencies

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif. arrives to read a statement outside her office on Capitol Hill, Monday, March 23, 2020, in Washington. Once the Senate acts on the relief bill it will move to the House for a vote. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool)

Jourdan Bennett-Begaye

Senate vote expected Wednesday; House action next up

The Senate and White House reached an agreement on the bailout funds for America, the largest in history. The $2 trillion relief package includes $8 billion for tribal governments and $2 billion for emergency supplemental funding for federal Indian programs.

The Senate vote on the agreement is set to happen this afternoon. Even if passed by the Senate, they would need House approval.

Senator Tom Udall, D-New Mexico and vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs release a statement on this third emergency relief package.

“Tribes are on the front lines of this public health crisis, and they have been very clear that they need health, economic, and community COVID-19 recovery resources. That is why I’ve pushed for inclusion of Tribal-specific resources and policies,” Udall said. “I’m proud that I was able to work with my Senate Democratic colleagues to fight for important Tribal-specific provisions to improve this urgent legislation.”

“No doubt – these are key victories. But the fight to make sure Indian Country isn’t left behind in the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic must continue. Congress must do more to respond to the unique COVID-19 related public health and economic crises in Indian Country and to uphold our trust and treaty responsibilities to all American Indians and Alaska Natives,” Udall said. “As vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, I’m renewing my call for our next response package to include a Tribal-specific title, and for pushing Congress and the Trump administration to make sure Indian Country has equal access to federal coronavirus resources.”

The $8 billion for tribal governments will provide a “one stop” accessibility for 574 federally-recognized tribes to “flexible resources they need for COVID-19 response and economic recovery” and to continue essential tribal government services, Udall said.

As for the $2 billion emergency supplemental funding, this will be for federal Indian programs like Indian Health Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Indian Education, and the Office of Native American Programs at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

To further break it down, $1.032 billion would go to Indian Health Service, with “significant funds” going to tribal shares and urban organizations, $453 million goes toward the Bureau of Indian Affairs that could be used for public safety, deep cleaning of facilities, purchasing personal protective equipment for health care workers and other emergency personnel, and the last $69 million is for the Bureau of Indian Education.

The stimulus package also includes $100 million for the USDA Food Distribution Program for Indian reservations ($50 million must be for facility and equipment upgrades and $50 million for food purchases) and $300 million to the Office of Native American Programs at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Tuesday Reps. Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Arizona, Deb Haaland, D-New Mexico, and Ruben Gallego, D-Arizona, of the Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States sat on a call with the Senate negotiators and House leadership to make sure upcoming relief packages included the health needs in Indian Country.

“Every community in this country deserves access to the tools to fight coronavirus, but to date this administration has not been in good communication with Indian Country and hasn’t been sending the resources they need,” Haaland said on March 24. “Today’s call was a step in the right direction to ensure Native communities aren’t left behind as our country works to keep families safe and healthy. We’ll keep this administration’s feet to the fire and continue to ensure our legislative priorities are included in any relief package moving forward.”

“I am encouraged by IHS’s honest communication on this morning’s call,” Gallego stated in the news release. “I urge them to continue to improve the process for meeting the urgent supply needs of Indian Country and to plan for the future as this pandemic worsens. Indian Health Service, Tribal, and urban Indian health facilities serve some of our most vulnerable populations but are among the most under-resourced in the country. That can have deadly results during a public health crisis like the one we are facing now. We must work together to save lives and keep Tribal communities safe and healthy.”

Haaland has been reviewing the stimulus package this afternoon to make sure her constituents are thought of. 

“I’m grateful to Senator Tom Udall and Senator Martin Heinrich for staying true to our values and fighting to put families first. At first glance there are many things we can be proud of in this bill – expanded unemployment assistance, paid leave, support for small businesses, and resources for health care workers on the front lines," Haaland said.

Kansas Rep. Sharice Davids, Ho-Chunk, said she will make sure tribal nations receive adequate funding.

“Any economic relief package that Congress puts forward must fully address the needs of Indian Country. I’m working with my colleagues to ensure that the federal government upholds its legal trust responsibility and provides proper funding for Tribes so they can access life-saving resources during this public health crisis," Davids said. "We will not let the needs of Tribal communities be overlooked.”

Udall wrote a letter to United States Vice President Mike Pence, who is leading the coronavirus task force team, earlier this month urging Pence to remember tribes when it comes to fighting COVID-19.

Senator Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts and Udall are also working together on legislation to make sure that IHS, tribal health authorities, and urban Indian organizations can access the Strategic National Stockpile. The stockpile is a federal repository of drugs and medical supplies for emergencies. Tribes never had access to it, said Bohlen.

The New Mexico senator also introduced the CDC Tribal Public Health Security and Preparedness Act that would allow tribes to apply to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s public health emergency preparedness program. The bill authorizes the CDC to make modifications to the program for tribal applicants.

This stimulus package may have included Indian Country, but some say it left out elections for the country.

Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law, recognizes the pandemic is a “health and economic crisis,” but it “could wreak havoc in November.”

“The $2 trillion dollar stimulus will help soften its effects on the American people. However, Congress failed to include sufficient, urgently needed funds in the stimulus to help states run elections in a time of pandemic,” Waldman said. “States simply will not have the resources so people can vote safely. Congress must do better when it composes the next stimulus package. State election officials from both parties have made it clear they need help to hold a safe, fair, and secure November election under pandemic conditions.

The center estimates that at least $2 billion is needed to cover the equipment, supplies, staffing, training and more.

“That funding is not partisan and it is not a luxury,” Waldman said. “Time remains of the essence.”

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Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Diné, is the Washington editor for Indian Country Today based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter: @jourdanbb. Email: jbennett-begaye@indiancountrytoday.com

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