TOPEKA — The six-member Kansas congressional delegation found bipartisan purpose amid the flourishing COVID-19 pandemic by voting for a $900 billion relief package delivering $600 stimulus checks for most people, extending unemployment benefits and expanding a popular business loan forgiveness initiative.
It didn’t resolve two thorny issues: Federal aid for cash-strapped cities and states sought by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly and a GOP goal of shielding businesses from employee lawsuits tied to coronavirus outbreaks.
The U.S. House voted Monday night to approve the measure 327-85 with support of GOP U.S. Reps. Ron Estes, Roger Marshall and Steve Watkins and Democratic U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids. It was most likely the final consequential congressional vote for Watkins, a one-term Topeka Republican who lost a campaign for re-election and leaves office in January.
In the Senate, Kansas Republicans Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran joined the 92-6 majority to forward the deal to President Donald Trump. Roberts, closing a 40-year career in Washington, D.C., probably won’t again have opportunity to weigh in on such a bill — certainly not one comprising a record 5,600 pages.
“We must continue to strive for better days. Ad astra per aspera,” said Roberts, referencing the state motto of Kansas. “This legislation helps to ensure a better future for every Kansan, their neighbors, local businesses, schools and the economy while also providing direct, targeted relief to Kansans’ pocketbooks.”
He noted the legislation featured a $300 per week supplemental unemployment insurance benefit, offered stimulus checks of up to $600 per person, invested $82 billion to help schools and colleges operate, and put $26 billion into agriculture and nutrition programs.
Moran said the nation was at a turning point in the pandemic with initial distribution of coronavirus vaccine. The bill sent to the president included priorities outlined by Moran, including nearly $50 billion for purchase and distribution of vaccine as well as coronavirus testing conducted by state governments.
“This targeted relief package also includes additional funding for the successful Paycheck Protection Program, which will help keep small businesses open and employees on the payroll, and a second round of aid to families during the holiday season,” Moran said.
Davids, the delegation’s only Democrat, said the compromise legislation ought to have included support to state and local governments.
“This is critical for stopping devastating cuts to our public schools, roads, fire and police departments, public health agencies and other services that we depend on. You can be sure I’ll keep fighting for this essential relief. I’ll also push for strong oversight and transparency measures as relief funds are distributed,” Davids said.
Marshall, the rural 1st District Republican elected to replace Roberts in the U.S. Senate, said it was a frustrating wait for a new round of COVID-19 relief. He joined Republican colleagues in blaming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, for a “shameful” decision to gridlock negotiations to delay delivery of a political victory for Trump.
“Since the summer,” Marshall said, “Republicans have called for a targeted relief package that prioritizes refunding the Paycheck Protection Program, funding for vaccine distribution, additional support for unemployed Americans and resources to allow our children to safely return to the classroom. This relief legislation delivers on all of those priorities and leaves out the unnecessary funding for cities and states and socialist priorities of the left.”
The agreement came in the lame-duck period following Trump’s re-election loss and prior to inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, but long after the $2 billion CARES Act measure in March. The virus has killed more than 320,000 in the United States and nearly 2,500 in Kansas.
Estes, who holds down the 4th District seat in Congress anchored by Wichita, said federal lawmakers approved a provision eliminating surprise medical billing and a one-year extension in the timeframe for state and local governments to spend coronavirus aid.
“The legislation also offers key assistance for rural Kansas, including $300 million to build out rural broadband and a new designation for rural hospitals to maintain their viability,” he said.