The latest round of federal COVID-19 pandemic relief was top of mind Thursday when Dubuque’s congressional delegation in Washington, D.C., spoke with local leaders.
The conversation came during a virtual event serving as a replacement for the Dubuque Area Chamber of Commerce’s annual fly-in and congressional staff visits.
Republican U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst and Democrat U.S. Rep. Abby Finkenauer provided updates on the latest in the Capitol and answered questions.
Grassley chairs the Senate Finance Committee, so he has been front and center in the latest pandemic relief discussions. He said Thursday that if negotiations on a comprehensive plan have not reached their conclusion by the end of next week, he would want to enact at least three measures.
First, he said extending some federal “add-on” to state unemployment compensation was a necessity. Those who lost work due to the pandemic have, until this week, received $600 per week to compensate.
“That ought to be able to be compromised because the Democrat leader in the House of Representatives said they can come down from $600,” Grassley said. “We (Senate Republicans) are at $200 now.”
He also said he would push for protections from evictions, but not the eviction moratoriums enacted earlier in the pandemic. Grassley would prefer appropriating a pool of money for people who show they are in need.
He said the third must-have was a big jump in supplemental funding for education as students return this fall.
Grassley said the two chambers are close together on this, with the Senate proposing $105 billion: $70 billion for K-12 education, including $10 billion for private schools; $30 billion for higher education; and $5 billion for governors to use at their discretion.
Finkenauer agreed with a need for a burst of education funding, but she had her own priorities for the next phase of relief as well. She also is pushing an extension of the Paycheck Protection Program for employers who have continued to pay employees throughout the pandemic, and she is advocating for bolstering the nation’s COVID-19 testing capacity and helping local governments.
Ernst agreed with the need for education spending but said she also is focused on raising the ceiling on Economic Injury Disaster Loans, some extension of the PPP program and efforts to include child care funding in the next phase of relief. Ernst has introduced the Back to Work Child Care Grants program, which would provide a nine-month grant program for child care providers.
In addition to more direct coronavirus relief funding, City of Dubuque officials said on the call that the long-promised infrastructure bill would help right the ship economically.
“We’re hopeful we’re going to see something by the end of the year because not only do we all need those funds, but it serves as such a stimulus to an economy we’re all concerned about,” said Assistant City Manager Teri Goodmann.
City Manager Mike Van Milligen said a growing number of unemployment claims have been from the construction industry, due in part to local governments delaying capital improvement projects.
Finkenauer, who sits on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, agreed.
“It is the best return on investment we have,” she said, pointing to an omnibus House bill that includes three, previously separate bipartisan bills she co-sponsored in committee. “This is investments in roads and bridges, resiliency, making sure we plus up our transit, especially in places like Dubuque.”
Ernst sits on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, where she, too, recently helped guide bills to invest in highways, bridges and water infrastructure.
“What we want to see is movement on those two acts by the end of the year,” she said. “We would like to package that with a rural broadband bill. If we could get those three bills together, it would be a huge success for not just Iowa, but every state.”
Broadband was been a big focus for Finkenauer, too, and something she is pushing for before year’s end.
Ernst, though, also admitted that a contentious election year could become a difficult time to pass such multi-faceted legislation.