Georgia Democrats herald passage of COVID-19 relief bill, benefits to the state

WASHINGTON — Shortly ahead of a final vote on the House floor, Democratic members of Georgia’s congressional delegation took their “victory lap” on the COVID-19 relief bill.

One by one, they spoke Wednesday about various provisions in the $1.9 trillion package and why they believe it will help Georgians recover from the effects of the pandemic. U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff touted the $1,400 stimulus checks and new tax credits for parents. U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson of Lithonia talked up money to reopen schools and $350 billion that will be divided among all 50 states.

U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, who lives in Atlanta, focused on the money for working parents like her.

“As a mother of a kindergartener,” she said, “this bill kind of hits home for me as we’re sending money back to Georgia to get all of our children back in the classroom safely and provide child care for working families so that they can make a living, put food on the table and get our economy reopened.”

No Republican in the House or Senate voted in favor of the bill, called the American Rescue Plan. Wednesday’s final vote in the House was 220-211, with one Democrat from Maine joining every Republican in voting “no.”

President Joe Biden said he will sign the bill into law on Friday, two days ahead of a deadline when certain unemployment benefits were set to expire.

While Georgia Democrats were eager to praise the package, Republicans during debate described the measure as ill-conceived and bloated. U.S. Rep. Andrew Clyde of Athens criticized the funding formula used to allocate state and local dollars, echoing Gov. Brian Kemp in saying that states such as Georgia that didn’t experience steep rises in unemployment weren’t getting their fair share.

U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Rome expressed her opposition by calling for a motion to adjourn the House instead of taking a vote on the COVID-19 package. It was the latest in a series of delaying tactics Greene has employed ahead of votes on bills she disagrees with, but this time fewer of her fellow GOP members were willing to side with her. Forty Republicans sided with Democrats in defeating the adjournment request.

Another Georgia Republican, U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, said the latest coronavirus relief bill was premature since dollars allocated under previous COVID-19 packages have not all been spent.

“So, why do we need to pass another $1.9 trillion?” said Carter, who lives in Pooler. “You will find the reasons in the more than 90% of the bill that does not specifically target combating COVID-19. What you will find is a partisan list of bailouts.”

Carter and other Republicans have said that the funding for state and local governments and extended unemployment benefits are not directly related to the pandemic. Democrats say that is an oversimplification and a comprehensive package is needed to help families and businesses still suffering from the pandemic’s effects.

Democrats during their press conference also highlighted Georgia voters’ role in helping put Biden in the White House and giving them control of the U.S. Senate. That paved the way for a larger and more liberal relief bill than would have been possible if Republicans had the majority in either chamber or veto power in the White House.

“I just want to say thank God for Georgia,” U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock said.

In addition to celebrating the bill’s passage and the new money coming to Georgia, the eight Democrats in the state’s congressional delegation also asked the federal government to investigate how existing funds have been spent.

In a letter to acting U.S. Department of Labor Inspector General Larry Turner, they requested an audit of Georgia’s Department of Labor, which has struggled to process hundreds of thousands of unemployment claims during the pandemic. Frustrated Georgians who can’t get through the system via phone calls and emails have turned to their state legislators and congressional members, the letter said. U.S. Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux, D-Suwanee, said the letter was sent at her urging.

Congress previously set aside $67 million to help the state Department of Labor with the cost of administering its unemployment system, and more money is on the way under the new bill. The delegation’s members said they want to ensure those funds are being used appropriately and described the current issues as “egregious” and possibly in violation of federal laws requiring timely payment of benefits.

Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler said the issue isn’t mismanaging funds or even a backlog, although he acknowledged an unprecedented number of claims during the pandemic. He said members of Congress had passed down mandates without anticipating the workload required and are now questioning how the state system is being run without clear evidence.

“They say they’re getting some phone calls: Guess what? We’re getting some phone calls, too,” Butler said. “But that does not mean we are not doing our job. They do not understand the scope of what we’re trying to do.”

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