As Congress eyes coronavirus relief, Ga. runoffs also weigh on deal

(FROM LEFT TO RIGHT) David Perdue, Jon Ossoff, Kelly Loeffler, and Raphael Warnock Credit: Associated Press / AJC

(FROM LEFT TO RIGHT) David Perdue, Jon Ossoff, Kelly Loeffler, and Raphael Warnock Credit: Associated Press / AJC

Federal lawmakers are on the cusp of agreeing to a coronavirus relief package that will funnel much-needed relief to Georgians even as the candidates in the state’s critical Senate runoffs clash over the months-long delay in approving the measure.

Congress was on the verge of passing final legislation that would finance new direct payments, unemployment aid and rental assistance to Americans struggling during a pandemic that has sickened more than 17.6 million Americans and killed more than 10,000 Georgians. The coronavirus provisions were rolled into a larger package that keeps the federal government funded through September.

The still-raging outbreak is a driving issue of the Jan. 5 runoffs for control of the U.S. Senate. Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock contend that President Donald Trump and U.S. Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue would rather downplay the disease’s devastating toll rather than work in Congress to pass relief.

“Where has the United States Senate been?” Ossoff asked at a drive-in rally in Duluth on Sunday, echoed by honking horns. “It’s been eight months since they passed any economic relief for the people. Because the truth of the matter is, folks like David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler do not care about you. If they cared about you, they’d be helping you.”

The two Republican incumbents prefer to focus largely on the recent federal approval of vaccines. They’ve also slammed Democrats for what they view as the politicization of an outbreak that has caused widespread damage to the state.

“We need to do more, and Democrats continue to play politics time and again — and we’re going to hold them accountable on January 5th,” Loeffler said after a rally Sunday with Perdue in Cumming, adding: “I will vote for it. I’ve been calling for it for months, and I’ll be a ‘yes’ vote on it.”

More than 400,000 Georgians are currently jobless, according to an estimate by the left-leaning Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, and there are likely far more people out of work. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, at least 3.9 million Georgians have lost their job or cut their hours this year.

Last week, the Department of Labor reported Georgia’s unemployment rate rose to 5.7% in November from 4.5% in October, the latest sign the state’s economy hasn’t yet recovered from the lockdown earlier this year meant to contain the spread of the disease.

About 85,000 Georgians have already exhausted their pandemic unemployment benefits, and weekly payments from a federal pandemic assistance program are set to expire for hundreds of thousands of Georgians on Saturday — the day after Christmas — if new financing isn’t approved.

The direct payments in the package won’t amount to the $1,200 checks that were approved in a March stimulus law. Instead, the negotiations resulted in $600 payments for many Americans, along with $300 weekly jobless aid through the spring.

While Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell privately urged his Republican colleagues to endorse the deal to help the Georgia incumbents, warning they were “getting hammered” over the failure to act, Democrats quickly promised more generous relief if they won the runoffs.

Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut said if Democrats had control of the chamber, the direct stimulus checks would have amounted to $1,200 and that the deal would have allotted $175 billion - instead of $25 billion - to help struggling residents pay the rent.

President-elect Joe Biden, too, has tied his proposal for a broader coronavirus package and new public health funding to stop the spread of the disease to the fate of Georgia’s runoffs.

At a campaign stop last week, and a subsequent TV ad, Biden said a Democratic-controlled Senate is crucial for his plan to boost the public health response, ensure free testing and vaccination for every American and pump financial relief into small businesses.

“Let me be clear, I need Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in the United States Senate to get this done,” he said of the Jan. 5 runoffs.

Among the potential opponents is U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, R-Monroe, who indicated last week that he may vote against the stimulus package, in part because lawmakers will have little time to review its contents before a vote.

“Why should we be expected to vote on a $3 trillion spending bill when we haven’t even seen it?,” he said on Twitter, mentioning a high-end estimate of the size of the proposal. “With ZERO regular order. With ZERO debate. With ZERO time to analyze it. POLITICAL. SHENANIGANS.”