As deadline for COVID-19 stimulus deal closes in, Pa. residents ‘need help yesterday’

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 21: The U.S. Capitol is shown at dusk.(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Victoria Murrell graduated from Seton Hill University on Monday with a degree in human resources management. The 32-year-old single mother, whose daughter is 12, is the first in her family to go to college. And now, like every other Pennsylvanian trying to make their way through the pandemic, she’s wondering what to do next.

“I think that [COVID-19] has basically affected more people than we even realize,” Murrell, a waitress who’s been working at the same restaurant for 10 years, said Tuesday during a conference call organized by U.S. Sen. Bob Casey’s, D-Pa., office. “Especially for those of us who are living on their own, and you’re living paycheck to paycheck … I told my daughter that life will throw you many curveballs, but you have to keep going.”

Murrell said Tuesday that she’s been using money from her pandemic unemployment checks to help see her through.

“I’ve just been very frugal, because it’s a very difficult time that we’re in,” she said.

Murrell is one of the thousands of Pennsylvanians who stand to benefit if lawmakers on Capitol Hill can cobble together an agreement on a new COVID-19 relief package before current relief measures, including enhanced jobless benefits, expire on Dec. 26.

A new proposal that emerged Monday could provide help break a logjam over a relief bill., according to published reports.

COVID vaccine arrives in Pa., mitigation still needed, Levine says

The proposal, backed by a bipartisan group of about dozen centrist senators, calls for a two-pronged approach; a $748 billion package would provide aid for education, vaccine assistance, and transportation, Politico reported. A $160 billion add-on would pay for long-sought assistance to state and local governments and short-term liability relief for employers, Politico reported.

According to NBC News, Congress faces a midnight deadline on Friday to keep the federal government funded. And while congressional leaders say a COVID-19 package should be part of that, it’s not clear that they can reach a deal by then.

“The short and simple message for this week is that Congress needs to act,” Casey said Tuesday. “We’re in the middle of the worst part of the worst public health crisis in a century. We need to act this week, and not let this go into next week and create more uncertainty. We need to act now with prospect of a bipartisan [COVID-19] relief bill. I want to commend the work of the senators negotiating an agreement.”

The Scranton Democrat could not say Tuesday whether a negotiated relief package would include individual stimulus checks for workers — a hallmark of the first CARES Act package earlier this year.

As it’s currently written, the bill, which clocks in a total of $908 billion, includes enhanced unemployment benefits, but it does not include individual stimulus payments, according to CNBC. Some leaders on Capitol Hill and economists believe such payments are necessary to help the economy recover, CNBC reported.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who, along with U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., has been leading the push for those stimulus checks, has urged Democrats to reject the plan that emerged Monday because it does not include those payments. Sanders called the proposal “totally inadequate,” Politico reported Monday.

The outgoing Trump administration largely has been disengaged from current talks, according to NBC News. The White House has floated the idea of $600 stimulus checks, but has called for sharp reductions to jobless benefits.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has proposed dropping the liability shield and the state aid, NBC News reported. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., argue that states need financial assistance to distribute the COVID-19 vaccine.

“Pennsylvania, like every state in the country, desperately needs new COVID-19 relief from the federal government, especially those who are unemployed and facing a housing crisis,” Marc Stier, the director of the progressive Pennsylvania Budget & Policy Center, told reporters Tuesday. “The Pennsylvania economy has been slowly slipping back into recession since September,” making direct assistance even more critical.

A stopgap state budget approved by lawmakers, and signed by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, used the state’s remaining $1.3 billion in CARES Act funding to backfill state police, corrections officers and public health employees salaries, rather than to provide assistance to hurting businesses and workers like Murrell, who said her employer recently shutdown because of pandemic restrictions.

“Pennsylvanians need help from the federal government and they need it yesterday,” Stier said

John L. Micek
A 3-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. An award-winning political reporter, Micek’s career has taken him from small town meetings and Chicago City Hall to Congress and the Pennsylvania Capitol. His weekly column on U.S. politics is syndicated to 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. He also contributes commentary and analysis to broadcast outlets in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Micek’s first novel, “Ordinary Angels,” was released in 2019 by Sunbury Press