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States, cities plead for coronavirus aid as Congress faces crises

The House’s $3 trillion package is shelved, as Senate Republicans are focused instead on trimming unemployment benefits and getting Americans back to work.

WASHINGTON — One small-town Oklahoma mayor testified before Congress she’s worried the city's 18-bed hospital can't handle a second Covid-19 wave. Many counties are slashing sizable chunks of their government work force. States are staring down red ink as the fiscal year comes to a close.

As local leaders are pleading for more federal aid — even before protests over police violence erupted in almost every corner of the country — the Senate resumes session Monday with no immediate plans to consider a fresh round of relief. The House's staggering $3 trillion package is mothballed in the Senate, where Republicans are focused instead on trimming unemployment benefits and getting Americans back to work. Quick action by Congress is skidding to a halt.

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The standoff is perhaps standard Washington negotiating, but "they're playing a very dangerous game of chicken,” said Meredith McGehee, executive director at Issue One, which advocates for government reforms to ease political gridlock.

Congress is confronting mounting crises — the virus outbreak, the shattered economy and now nationwide protests over the killings of black people at the hands of police — all crashing into an election year. It's a moment that calls for steady leadership. But the House is working remotely rather than risk convening in the pandemic, while the Senate wants to wait and see if nearly $2 trillion in previously approved aid is sufficient while it focuses on President Donald Trump's priorities.

As the Senate gavels in, Republicans who control the chamber will focus on investigations Trump wants of the Obama administration's handling of the probe of Russia interference in the 2016 election interference and ties to Trump's campaign. Key hearings this week over what Trump calls “Obamagate” are scheduled at the Judiciary and Homeland Security committee. Both are scheduled to consider issuing subpoenas for testimony from current and former officials.

Rather than unleash more federal aid to counter the pandemic, Senate Republicans want to cut back unemployment benefits they worry are preventing workers from returning to their jobs and create a liability shield to protect businesses that do re-open from lawsuits related to COVID-19.

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“We're beginning to consider whether or not to do another rescue package and it’s been my view we need to be a little bit careful,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell during a radio interview Friday in his home state of Kentucky.

McConnell said the Senate won't be considering the $3 trillion “grab bag” of the House-passed Heroes Act.

In urging action, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Sunday linked the death of George Floyd in Minnesota to the “injustice” of the virus outbreak's impact on African American and other minority populations.

“The fact is that the coronavirus has taken an undue toll among people of color,” Pelosi said on ABC. She said there is not enough virus testing in minority communities. “This, again, is an injustice."

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer called on McConnell to cancel the “conspiracy hearings” and focus on the health and economic needs.

Schumer said Senate Republicans are turning the Senate "into an extension of the president’s reelection campaign.”

Deadlines are fast approaching. Most states have budget deadlines with the new fiscal year starting July 1. The $600 boost to unemployment benefits approved in the previous aid package is set to expire July 31. Small businesses that tapped the Paycheck Protection Program will start seeing loans come due without adjustments by Congress.

Teryn Zmuda chief economist at the National Association of Counties, said local governments have been ”on the forefront” of the COVID response but there is a dollar amount that is associated with that.

Many jurisdictions faced the double-whammy of increased overtime pay for essential workers and declining revenues as stay-home orders cut sales and gas taxes, toll fees and other revenue streams.

The result has been 800,000 jobs lost in the local government sector in April alone, according to a report from the association. More are expected.

“The cost has stacked up at the local level,” Zmuda said.

At a hearing of the new House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, Mayor Mary Jane Scott of Mangum, Oklahoma, testified Friday that the area's small hospital, which receives patients from across the rural region, was overloaded when the community faced an outbreak. She can't imagine trying to withstand second wave.

Yet Jacksonsville, Florida, Mayor Lenny B. Curry warned the committee there's also a high-cost of staying home. He said the city has seen a spike in substance abuse overdose calls.

Republicans argue against what some call bailouts for states, warning some have overextended with generous services, pensions or mismanagement.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the majority whip, who appeared at an online event Friday with a conservative group, said Congress has already “flooded the zone” with a “staggering amount” of funds.

"I don’t expect we’ll see any immediate action in the Senate," Thune said.

McGee notes that Washington often haggles as all sides try to cut a deal. But she said, “playing that game in the middle of the pandemic and our economic — I hate to say collapse, but close to that — the game becomes more than a political game — it’s life and death, it’s economic ruin.”