Democrats won Senate approval Saturday of President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion economic stimulus package after modifying some provisions to assuage party moderates but preserving historic debt relief for minority farmers that Republicans tried to strip from the bill.
Because of a number of changes made by the Senate, which passed the bill 50-49 after an all-night session that left many senators struggling to stay awake Saturday morning, the legislation must go to back to the House for a final approval before it can go to Biden for his signature. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, missed the votes because of a funeral in his home state.
The bill, which contains $22.7 billion in agriculture and nutrition assistance provisions, including $3.6 billion in aid for the food supply chain as well as the $4 billion estimated cost of paying off USDA direct and guaranteed loans held by minority farmers.
Because of a key change negotiated by moderate Democrats, the package also would provide additional help for expanding broadband service as well as infrastructure: The $340 billion earmarked in the bill for aid to state and local governments could be used for water, sewer and broadband as well as to cover pandemic-related needs and revenue shortfalls.
"This bill will deliver more help to more people than anything the federal government has done in decades,” Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said shortly before the final vote. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., countered that the Senate had never voted to spend so much money “in such a haphazard fashion.”
After Democrats spent most of the day Friday ironing out a deal on unemployment benefits, Republicans kept the Senate in session over night and nearly to noon on Saturday debating a series of amendments intended to highlight what they saw as gaps or unjustified spending in the measure. A far smaller, $650 billion alternative package sponsored by Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and similar to one that Biden had rejected earlier failed on a 48-51 vote.
Also defeated, 45-54, was an amendment by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, to make farmers hit by last year's devastating derecho in his state eligible for a share of the $3..6 billion in food system relief. A similar provision was narrowly approved in the House Agriculture Committee but stripped from the legislation before the House floor vote.
Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., took aim at the minority farmer debt relief championed by Black Democratic senators Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., and House Agriculture Committee Chairman David Scott. Toomey called the provision “unconstitutional” and “outrageous.”
Under that provision, farmers who are Black, Hispanic, Native American or Asian American could receive payments worth up to 120% of their indebtedness on direct or guaranteed USDA loans.
The additional 20% is intended to pay off the taxes the estimated 15,000 farmers would owe as a result of getting the payments. A slight change made in the Senate version could allow USDA to reduce the payments for the largest loans: The original House version said the payments must be "equal to" 120% of the indebtedness; the Senate changed that to "up to" 120%.
“There is no income test, no asset test, it doesn’t matter whether you are rich or poor. You don’t have to have experienced any harm or any kind whatsoever, including from COVID. You just have to be the right race,” Toomey said.
“This bill is supposed to be about COVID relief and helping the people who are adversely affected by the economics of the lockdown. Instead we’re handing out money based exclusively on race.”
Warnock, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee who also is a pastor at the late Martin Luther King Jr.’s church in Atlanta, argued that the debt relief “has everything to do about COVID-19 relief. The terrible thing about this pandemic is that it has both illuminated and exacerbated long-standing disparities rooted in our racial past.
“For too long, farmers of color have been left to fend for themselves, not getting the support they deserve from the USDA, making it even more difficult for them to recover from this pandemic.”
Toomey's amendment failed on a party-line, 49-50 vote.
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In addition to the debt forgiveness, another $1 billion in assistance is targeted toward helping minority farmers with technical assistance, financial training and access to land. Some $5 million of that is earmarked for operation of an equity commission that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is forming to investigate to "root out any systemic racism" in USDA programs.
Republicans also sought to raise concerns about the package by pointing out that it could trigger massive cuts in many existing federal programs, including farm bill spending, under the PAYGO rules of the deficit-control law enacted in 2011.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., told Agri-Pulse she is confident Congress will vote later to waive the PAYGO rules, even though that would require at least 10 Republican votes. The waiver measure would presumably be tucked into a must-pass bill, making it difficult for GOP senators to oppose it.
Stabenow noted that Democrats supported waiving the PAYGO rules after passage of the GOP tax cuts in 2017.
The bill's ag and nutrition provisions include $3.6 billion earmarked to fund commodity purchases and to provide grants and loans to processors, farmers markets, producers and organizations to pay for needs such as workers' personal protection equipment and to retool operations to "maintain and improve food and agricultural supply chain resiliency."
Another $500 million is earmarked for grants to rural health care providers to compensate them for revenue lost due to the pandemic and to help with a range of needs, including the cost of testing and vaccine distribution.
The package would extend the temporary 15% increase in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits through September, and expand child nutrition assistance.
To address connectivity issues that have plagued rural areas and schools during the pandemic, the bill would allocate more than $7 billion to help schools and libraries pay for devices, internet service and Wifi hotspots.
Moderate Senate Democrats won tighter eligibility limits on the $1,400-per-person payments that the bill would provide.
Under the new Senate version, the payments would be phased down after $75,000 in adjusted gross income for an individual or $150,000 for a married couple. An individual with income of more than $80,000, or a couple with more than $160,000 in AGI wouldn't receive anything. Under the original House-passed bill, the payments would have phased out at $200,000 for a couple.
All adults and their dependents, including adult dependents, under the income limits would be eligible for the payments.
Democrats want to get the bill signed into law by next Sunday, when a current extension of extra unemployment benefits expires.
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