Georgia lawmakers call for changes to COVID relief ahead of Senate vote

Lucian Hargrove, 8, helps plant some of the 15,000 flags on the lawn of First Christian Church of Decatur on Saturday, February 20, 2021. The flags represent the number of COVID-19 deaths in Georgia, and the effort aims to raise awareness about the toll of the coronavirus. (Photo: Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Lucian Hargrove, 8, helps plant some of the 15,000 flags on the lawn of First Christian Church of Decatur on Saturday, February 20, 2021. The flags represent the number of COVID-19 deaths in Georgia, and the effort aims to raise awareness about the toll of the coronavirus. (Photo: Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

WASHINGTON — Georgia lawmakers from both sides of the aisle said there is room to improve the latest coronavirus relief bill before the U.S. Senate takes a final vote.

The $1.9 trillion plan is President Joe Biden’s top priority, and it must be signed into law by March 14 to keep unemployment benefits from expiring. But the Senate still has work to do before taking a vote, including consideration of amendments. The House would then have to sign off on any changes before Biden can act.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer vowed to keep his members in Washington until a vote is taken, even if that means working through the weekend.

“It’s time to move forward with this legislation — which will be one of the largest single anti-poverty bills in recent history,” Schumer said Thursday. “It is time to lift this country out of crisis and set it on a path to strong and swift recovery. It is time to tell the American people that help is on the way.”

The relief package is being handled through the budget reconciliation process, which prevents Senate Republicans from using the filibuster to kill the measure. Jon Ossoff’s and Raphael Warnock’s victories in Georgia’s January runoffs gave Democrats the majority in the Senate needed to pass legislation without GOP support.

This relief bill passed in the House without any Republicans voting for the measure, and some Senate Republicans have taken steps to slow down progress in that chamber.

U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter voted against the bill last month but said he wants to see it improved, such as addressing a lag in vaccination rates in communities of color. The Pooler Republican said he has seen communities such as Savannah, which he represents, struggle to ensure access and overcome mistrust among Black residents.

“We need to add more money to go toward vaccine hesitancy in minority communities,” Carter said. “And they need to be more specific about policies in the reconciliation itself about what we are going to do to address this.”

Black people make up 33% of Georgia’s population but currently account for 12% of all vaccinations, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Carter partnered with a couple of Democrats to come up with ideas, such as providing free transportation to vaccination sites and partnering with historically Black colleges and universities or federally qualified health centers to create pop-up clinics. He wants $500 million to be set aside in the bill for such efforts.

Ossoff and Warnock have made passing COVID-19 relief, including another round of stimulus checks to Georgians, their No. 1 focus since being sworn in to office on Jan. 20. Both said Wednesday that equitable distribution of vaccines is key to getting the coronavirus under control.

“We were in the early days of the pandemic with testing where it was elites and those with wealth and connections who had special access to tests, while folks who are actually at highest risk because of the work that they do couldn’t get tested,” Ossoff said. “And we’re at risk of going down the same path with vaccines.”

He said now that the vaccine supply is ramping up, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services needs resources to “make sure those vaccines are getting into Black and brown communities and rural areas.”

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux, D-Suwanee, is looking at ways to make the overall package smaller. She and four other Democrats sent a letter to Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi this week suggesting the removal of parts of the bill that aren’t directly related to COVID-19, although they don’t specify which provisions they would target.

The group also suggests making unemployment benefits last longer but adding flexibility that allows the amount to decrease as the economy improves. They also recommend reevaluating the income limits for direct stimulus checks, noting that a family of four with an income of $175,000 and no job losses stands to receive $2,800.

“We owe it to the country to provide emergency support and defeat the virus,” the lawmakers wrote. “But we owe it to our grandchildren to make sure deficit spending is truly focused on emergencies.”

In the letter, Bourdeaux and the others also suggest that the formula for state and local dollars be revised so that the money is phased in over time and fluctuates based on individual states’ economic conditions.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp has said the current formula bails out states whose job losses were more severe during the pandemic. Although Georgia is the country’s eight-largest state by population, the $8.2 billion it stands to receive under the plan ranks 11th.

“In terms of direct impact to hardworking Georgians, the current formula being considered in Congress would allocate over 50% more to a resident in New York than a resident in Georgia,” Kemp told Fox News this week. “The Peach State would be the worst-hit under this new plan, receiving nearly $1.3 billion less than if the previous formula were applied. This is unacceptable.”

The Senate has not yet disclosed which amendments it may consider during its debate on the plan, and it’s not clear whether support exists for revising the money going to states or tweaking vaccine policy.

Warnock’s office this week rejected the claim that Georgia is being shortchanged, pointing out that recent GOP proposals have included no state and local funding.

He said Wednesday that the COVID-19 relief bill is intended to address the public health needs during a pandemic while also strengthening the U.S. economy. Georgia voters sent him to Washington to ensure a measure is passed that meets the needs of families, businesses and governments, he said.

“It is time for the Senate to get this over the finish line,” he said. “We cannot wait another day.”

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