Coronavirus: The Hill and the Headlines, March 2021 # 5

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Your guide to the latest Hill developments, news narratives, and media headlines from Hogan Lovells Government Relations and Public Affairs practice.

In Washington:

  • Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) continued his 11th-hour standoff on unemployment benefits that ended up holding up the Senate from moving forward with its coronavirus relief package Friday. Friday evening, Senate Democrats came to an agreement within their caucus to lower the enhanced unemployment benefits in the COVID-19 relief bill to $300 from the $400 included in the House bill. Centrists led by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Tom Carper (D-DE) support keeping the weekly benefit at $300, arguing the bill is too costly otherwise. The emerging deal extends enhanced benefits to October 4, past an August cutoff, according to a Senate Democratic aide. In a concession to progressives, the deal would also make up to $10,200 in unemployment compensation exempt from taxes. The tax break would apply to benefits received in 2020. Manchin's persistence in lowering jobless benefits because of concerns employers in his state won't be able to hire enough workers as the businesses start to reopen, mainly after vaccines are distributed this spring.
  • Other provisions in the Senate version of the bill include:
    • Expands employee retention tax credits to startup firms and boosts money for emergency food and shelter programs.
    • It would also make "shuttered venue operators," like theaters and museums, eligible for either grants and Paycheck Protection Program forgivable loans.
    • Increases Economic Development Administration allocations for states and communities suffering from revenue losses from the pandemic’s effect on tourism, travel, and outdoor recreation from $450 million to $750million.
    • Sets aside $8.5 billion for rural health care providers.
    • Provides out $2.75 billion from overall funding for K-12 education and directing it to private schools that serve a "significant percentage" of low-income students. In addition, $3B would be set aside for education technology, plus $1.25B each for summer and afterschool programs.
    • Graduates who obtain student loan forgiveness during the next five years wouldn't have to pay taxes on that loan forgiveness, which ordinarily is treated as taxable income.
    • Removes a set-aside within $15 billion for SBA grants for certain businesses demonstrating substantial harm.
    • Medicaid coverage for inmates prior to their release from jail was removed, as was health care funding for "congregate settings," including prisons and psychiatric facilities.
    • Money to help care for unaccompanied children who'd crossed the border illegally was also removed from the bill.
    • Would phase out checks completely at an income threshold of $80,000 for individuals, compared to $100,000 under the House bill. For couples, the checks would phase out completely at an income threshold of $160,000 under the Senate deal, compared to $200,000 for the House bill.
    • Increases COBRA subsidy to cover up to 100 percent of the health insurance premiums of laid-off workers; a boost from the House version that was 85 percent.
  • The economy added 379,000 jobs in February, a significant improvement from the 49,000 jobs added the previous month and more than double the 175,000 economists predicted. But the unemployment rate fell only slightly to 6.2 percent from 6.3 percent last month. The number of unemployed people remained at 10 million. Strong job gains in leisure and hospitality were offset by losses in state and local government, education, construction, and mining.

In the News:

  • The United States is administering an average of 2 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines per day, according to an analysis from The New York Times. The average is up from one month ago, when the daily average was about 1.3 million doses, according to the Times. The increased pace means that the Biden administration is on track to beat its goal of administering 100 million COVID-19 vaccine doses within the first 100 days of President Biden’s term, Axios notes.
  • Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro on Thursday told citizens to stop “whining” over the coronavirus pandemic as the country experienced two straight days of record COVID-19 deaths. Reuters reported that Bolsonaro, while speaking at an event, said, “Enough fussing and whining. How much longer will the crying go on?” He added, “[w]e regret the deaths, again, but we need a solution” to the perceived problem of excessive lockdowns. COVID-19 has killed 260,000 Brazilians, the world's second-highest national death toll.
  • The Democratic-led New York state senate voted Friday to strip Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) of emergency powers he was granted last year to address the pandemic. The bill also increases legislative oversight over existing orders. The state assembly is expected to pass the bill and Cuomo is expected to sign it. New York officials allege the governor’s administration covered-up coronavirus nursing home death data. Three women allege he sexually harassed them.
  • Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan (D) reversed course Friday after initially rejecting 6,200 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine intended for Detroit residents. Duggan questioned its efficacy Thursday, but on Friday said, “the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is both safe and effective” and that Detroit would take it. Experts have cautioned that the Johnson & Johnson shot’s lower efficacy rate against moderate-to-severe coronavirus cases (72 percent) stems from its later testing against more resilient coronavirus strains, and is not entirely comparable to earlier Pfizer and Moderna trials (95 percent). Scientists are now studying the latter two vaccine’s effectiveness against current variants.
  • For the first time, a majority of Americans say the COVID-19 situation in the country is improving, according to a new Gallup poll released Friday. The study, conducted Feb. 14-Feb. 21, found that 60 percent of respondents believe the state of the pandemic is either getting a little or a lot better, with 26 percent saying it was staying the same and 14 percent believing the situation was actually getting worse.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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