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What Mass. Lawmakers Want (And Don't Want) In Coronavirus Response

The coronavirus is gripping Capitol Hill, where the first two members of Congress have tested positive for COVID-19 and lawmakers are struggling to inoculate American families, industries and the markets from economic devastation. Wash your hands, keep your distance and dig in.

What Lawmakers Want: Cash For Americans, Student Loan Relief, Help for Those Stranded Abroad

Democratic U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III, D-Mass. (Josh Reynolds/AP)
Democratic U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III, D-Mass. (Josh Reynolds/AP)

As Congress and the White House try to hammer out a third, massive stimulus bill, Rep. Ayanna Pressley said student loan debt cancellation has to be a key component.

“We cannot have a stimulus package that fails to support the 45 million student loan borrowers,” Pressley said during a tele-town hall over the phone last night.

Pressley said she is also pressing other measures, like boosting support for community health centers.

Rep. Richard Neal said extended unemployment benefits should also include some part-time workers to help them “maintain their current standard of living.”

Extending benefits for those who work at least 18 hours a week “makes a good deal of sense,” Neal said during his own tele-town hall.

While lawmakers in both parties have proposed cash relief for Americans in the form of $1,000 checks, Rep. Joe Kennedy III wants more — upwards of $4,000 apiece. (You can read more about that here.)

Outside of the stimulus bill, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey are pressing the State Department to do more to bring home American citizens stranded abroad due to the coronavirus. They cited a Bloomberg report that a State Department official told such travelers they should not rely on the government for help.

Markey signed onto a letter demanding an immediate briefing on federal efforts to assist travelers. Warren supports the senators’ actions, tweeting that she “has heard from Mass. residents stranded overseas due to coronavirus.”

Marley also filed a bill that would require the president to appoint a pandemic czar.

What They Don’t Want: No-Strings Bailouts, Open Immigration Courts Or Lockdowns

Sen. Elizabeth Warren talks to the press after announcing that she was dropping out of the Democratic presidential race. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Sen. Elizabeth Warren talks to the press after announcing that she was dropping out of the Democratic presidential race. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Warren made clear what she does not want the latest coronavirus relief bill to do: allow corporations off the hook. She released a "progressive litmus test" for any bailout package for large corporations. It would bar companies from using bailout money to repurchase their own shares, require them to implement a number of worker protections and more.

Warren seems to have the ear of Democratic Senate Leader Chuck Schumer, who tweeted yesterday, “One of the reasons industries are so short on cash right now is that they have spent billions buying back their own stocks instead of investing in their workers and saving for a rainy day. That needs to be addressed NOW.”

Warren’s response: “Can I retweet this 100 times?”

Meanwhile, Markey is calling for the Justice Department to immediately close all immigration courts. While most non-detainment hearings have been postponed, and a handful of courts have been closed, most immigration courts  — including Boston — remain open for hearings of detained people. Read more from my colleague Shannon Dooling.

Gov. Charlie Baker has repeatedly said there are no plans to issue a shelter-in-place in Massachusetts. Rep. Stephen Lynch said there is no need for Boston to implement a containment zone like the one in New Rochelle, New York. But officials are ready to act if necessary.

“I don’t think we are at that stage currently,” Lynch said during a video town hall on the coronavirus response. “Everything is on the table if the circumstances were to present themselves, including lockdown. However, those circumstances are not present right now.”

How They’re Lawmaking In The Age of Coronavirus

Seth Moulton works with his daughter from home. (@sethmoulton / Twitter)
Seth Moulton works with his daughter from home. (@sethmoulton / Twitter)

Senators in town this week to vote on the coronavirus relief packages have been taking their own precautions against the virus, implementing new rules that give them extra time to vote to avoid crowding closely in the chamber. House members are in their districts, but they have scrapped in-person constituent services, opting instead for remote gatherings online.

Special guests at the tele-town halls have included doctors, health care experts and chef José Andrés, who joined Kennedy yesterday to discuss the impact on the restaurant industry and relief efforts.

Markey will hold a live Facebook Q&A on the coronavirus Thursday night at 6 p.m., and Rep. Lori Trahan hosts a tele-town hall tomorrow.

Lawmakers have also been sharing on Twitter how they’re working from home and social distancing.

3 More Things:

House Members Look For Answers On Census Impact: As Census forms began arriving in U.S. residents’ mailboxes this week, lawmakers want to know how the coronavirus could affect the census. Rep. Jim McGovern joined a letter from Maryland Rep. David Trone that asks the head of the U.S Census Bureau to tell lawmakers how it will mitigate the impact of the coronavirus. McGovern tweeted that he wants to see the agency’s “plan to ensure an accurate count during this unprecedented health emergency.”

Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Seth Moulton and Joe Kennedy III are also among the 100 members who signed the letter (virtually, out of an abundance of caution).

Senators Push Banks To Cut Fees: Warren and Markey urged the 19 largest banks and credit unions in Massachusetts to cancel all ATM fees, overdraft fees, late fees for credit card payments and other charges during the duration of the coronavirus crisis.

“The recovery from this pandemic is going to take collective effort to ensure that the most vulnerable are protected,” they write to the banks. “We are asking you to be a leader within the Massachusetts community and set an example for the financial sector in the rest of the country.”

Bye, Brady: The only thing that diverted lawmakers’ attention from the COVID-19 response was the new Brexit: the announcement that Tom Brady is leaving the Patriots.

“Not the St. Patrick’s Day announcement I was hoping for,” Kennedy told reporters in Newton Tuesday, minutes after Brady tweeted his decision. “Seeing 12 on any other team's jersey is going to be difficult.”

Rep Seth Moulton retweeted Brady’s announcement, adding: “Thank you, Tom, for so many years of Patriots glory.”


WHAT I'M READING

‘Dad, Are You Okay?’: Doctors And Nurses Fighting Pandemic Fear Infecting Their Families (Washington Post)

The Long Arc Of Joe Biden (The Atlantic)

As The Coronavirus Pandemic Continues, Homeless Communities Are Particularly Vulnerable (The Appeal)


NUMBER OF THE WEEK

$1.08 Billion

That’s the amount of new Medicaid funding that will come to the Bay State under the most recent federal coronavirus stimulus package signed into law last night. That  amount includes a 6.2% increase in the Federal Medical Assistance Percentages (FMAP) for Medicaid, according to members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation.


PARTING NOTE

I’ll be joining On Point’s journalist panel tomorrow to give the latest reporting on how Washington is responding to the coronavirus crisis. Do tune in!

Kimberly Atkins Twitter Senior News Correspondent
Kimberly Atkins is a senior news correspondent for WBUR, covering national political news from Washington, D.C., with a New England focus.

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