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The HEALS Act was introduced to the Senate as the Republican solution to COVID-19 financial relief but has already drawn criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike. Ava DeSantis writes on the prospects and contents of the HEALS Act.
On Wednesday, the GOP Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection and Schools Act (HEALS Act) was introduced in the Senate, a second COVID-19 relief package. The Democratic relief package, the HEROES Act, passed the House on May 15th and has yet to be introduced in the Senate.
Senate Democrats penned a letter to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, prior to the introduction of the HEALS Act, asking him to bring the HEROES Act to debate and vote on the Senate floor. The letter was signed by Democratic Senators Ron Wyden, Sherrod Brown, Patrick Leahy, Ben Cardin, Tammy Baldwin, Cory Booker, Debbie Stabenow, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Richard Blumenthal, Chris Van Hollen, Elizabeth Warren, Richard Durbin, Mazie K. Hirono, Kirsten Gillibrand, Dianne Feinstein, Sheldon Whitehouse, and Edward J. Markey.
“It is unacceptable that the Senate has taken zero action to debate or pass the HEROES Act for this entire month,” wrote the Senators. “Waiting until the end of July when we are right up against the expiration of key response measures represents inexcusable delay and dereliction of duty that would put families, workers, and businesses across our country in an even more precarious position by preventing economic recovery.”
Introducing the HEALS Act, Sen. Mitch McConnell alluded to pressure on Democrats to accept the GOP’s terms on COVID-19 relief. “The coronavirus,” said McConnell, “does not care if we are divided. The coronavirus will not care if Washington Democrats decide it suits their partisan goals to let relief run dry.”
The HEALS Act would cost about $1 trillion, compared to the $3 trillion cost of the HEROES Act, and is much more meager. The HEALS Act provides for a repeat of the economic impact payment included in the CARES Act, the first COVID-19 financial relief package. Individuals, earning up to $75,000 per year, will receive a cash payment of $1,200. Couples, with a combined income of up to $150,000, will receive $2,400. Families would also receive $500 per dependent. The Act is slightly more generous than the CARES Act, removing the age cap on qualifying dependents.
The HEROES Act would provide the same payments to individuals and couples, but give dependents $1,200 as well. While the HEALS Act discriminates, disallowing immigrants without an American Social Security number to qualify for any relief funds, the HEROES Act allows any person with a taxpayer identification number to receive relief.
Immigrants are overrepresented in occupations which have been devastated by the pandemic and high-risk occupations. Immigrants are overrepresented in high-risk positions, including doctors and home health aides. They also make up 20% of total workers in foodservice and domestic household industries, which have been economically devastated in recent months.
On workers, the two bills diverge sharply. The HEALS Act does not provide hazard pay for essential workers, the HEROES Act would establish a $200 billion “Heroes’ Fund” to provide hazard pay for some essential workers. Hazard pay is additional pay for workers who perform dangerous or physically strenuous labor. This relief would be distributed in the form of a $13 per hour pay premium, in addition to workers’ usual wages. The Service Employees International Union publicly supports the HEROES Act, President Mary Kay Henry saying “we are in nothing short of a national emergency and passage of this legislation would help us move closer to being able to meet this moment.”
The HEALS Act will cut the CARES Act $600 unemployment insurance to $200 per week, until October, when the $200 will be replaced with a payment covering 70% of a worker’s previous wages. The wage replacement benefit will be capped at $500 per week. The HEROES Act would maintain the $600 per week payments, extending eligibility to long-gig workers, independent contractors, part-time workers, and the self-employed. A senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project called the cut “unnecessarily cruel.”
The decision to cut unemployment insurance was a consensus between GOP congressional leadership and the White House, who worked together to draft the initial proposal, as it was unveiled on Monday night. Trump’s Treasury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin, told reporters “we are not going to extend [unemployment benefits] in a scenario where we’re paying more people to stay home than to work. I think that’s a concept that every American understands.”
Sen. McConnell expressed the same sentiment, calling unemployment benefits which exceed a worker’s normal wages “obvious craziness.” About 40% of workers who received unemployment benefits under the CARES Act, earned more on the enhanced unemployment than at their former jobs.
The HEALS Act would not extend the federal eviction moratorium, which expired last week. It would set aside $3.3 billion for housing vouchers, but housing advocates said at least $100 billion in rental assistance is needed. The HEROES Act, by contrast, would provide the $100 billion in rental assistance and extend the CARES eviction moratorium for a year after its passage. For homeowners, the HEROES Act would provide $75 billion to prevent mortgage defaults and foreclosures.
Both pieces of legislation ease the burdens of student loans and childcare costs.
Opponents from the left and right
There are no democratic cosponsors of the act, and Senate Democrats have harshly criticized the proposal. Sen. Schumer of New York argued as the debate over the Act began, “as communities across New York State rebuild and recover from a global pandemic, this new proposal falls dreadfully short of providing the relief they need. The HEALS Act, which does not even have the full support of the Republican Caucus, is haphazard and tilted to special interests rather than the urgent needs of suffering citizens need to beat back and recover from the crisis.”
McConnell admitted publicly that he believes “probably not everyone” in the Republican Senatorial conference would support the plan. The plan’s success is unlikely, possible opposition of some Republicans might pose an existential threat to the bill.
One Republican opponent, Sen. Mike Braun of Indiana, predicted “it’s going to lose a bunch of us that are fiscal conservatives, regardless of the content – just the amount. It’s got some of the features in there that we really weren’t liking. I think you’re going to see a lot of Republicans that are probably not going to be for it.”
“At the end of the day, [McConnell] has to accept the reality that probably half of our members in the Senate won’t vote for it no matter what’s in it,” said Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri. Possibly one of these dissenters, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said of the bill “simply shoveling cash from Washington is not going to solve the problem. And right now, all the Democrats and too many Republicans are contemplating doing just that. Massive spending and pork and ballooning deficits and debt are bipartisan problems.”
Pelosi, the Democratic House Majority Leader, appeared similarly pessimistic. Pelosi exited a meeting with Republican leadership on Monday, and said to a gaggle of reporters “we hope that we would be able to reach an agreement. We clearly do not have shared values. Having said that, we just want to see if we can find some common ground to go forward. But we’re not at that place yet.”
“The only reason I can see that Speaker Pelosi and the Democratic leader would sabotage negotiations is if, as some concluded when they killed police reform in June, they actually think bipartisan progress for the country would hurt their own political chances,” McConnell accused Pelosi of inventing her objections for political gain. He called the Democratic party of June “cynical” and “obstructionist.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham also defended the bill, saying “at the end of the day, we all have a need to pass something.” President Trump held a press conference yesterday, where he lauded the efforts of GOP congressional leaders to “extend unemployment benefits today in the face of strong Democrat obstruction.” He added that he hopes Democrats will work to stop evictions, a provision which his Republican allies have not supported.
On Wednesday, the President raised another objection to the Act, saying he would like the cash payments to be higher than $1,200 per person. “I’d like to see it be very high because I love the people,” Trump said. “I want the people to get it.”
The state of COVID-19 relief
The CARES Act enhanced unemployment benefits end today. The federal eviction moratorium expired last week, the moratorium on foreclosures for buildings with federally backed mortgages expires August 31st, automatic forbearance for federal student loans will end on September 30th, and penalty-free early withdrawals from retirement accounts will expire by December 31st alongside the expansion of unemployment eligibility.
Next week, Americans will need Congress to take action as these critical measures expire. The HEALS Act is offensive to Democrats, offensive to far-right conservative Republicans, and has been criticized by the President. It is unlikely the HEALS Act, at least in its current form, will be the relief measure Americans receive.
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