Congress preps for next COVID-19 relief bill, focused on infrastructure




The U.S. Capitol dome at dusk. Photo by John Brighenti | Flickr/CC BY 2.0

WASHINGTON — Congress is gearing up for additional COVID-19 response legislation that aims to build on the first three massive relief packages.

The next bill could include huge infrastructure projects, and U.S. House Democrats are pushing to include some of their top priorities that were sliced off the sweeping $2 trillion bill during negotiations with Senate Republicans.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has characterized strengthening national infrastructure as a key avenue for bipartisan action. President Donald Trump has also pushed for a massive infrastructure investment, although previous attempts to find broad bipartisan compromise on the issue have failed in recent years.

“For a strong recovery, we must invest in smarter, safer infrastructure that is made to last,” Pelosi said in a call Wednesday with reporters about the next round of congressional action.

House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) said the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed some “significant faults” in the nation’s infrastructure: “These faults call out for some repairs.”

Pelosi and other Democratic leaders called this week for efforts to improve access to high-speed internet, safe drinking water and community health centers. They also want to toughen environmental rules; strengthen the nation’s electric grid and transit systems; and enhance protections for workers on the front lines of the pandemic — like pharmacists, grocery store clerks and transportation security agents.

Also on House Democrats’ wish list: more money for individuals, states and cities; greater access to paid family and medical leave; expanded health care coverage for people affected by the virus; and the appointment of a national leader to oversee distribution of personal protective equipment and medical supplies.

Pelosi has also praised the nation’s mayors for calling on Trump to fully enforce the Defense Production Act to increase the production of medical supplies.

“We have to help the helpers,” she said.

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, agreed. “It is clear we need to do more,” he said.

Lawmakers are working on the contours of the next bill while Congress is in recess, and Pelosi predicted that the House will take it up when lawmakers are slated to reconvene later this month.

‘Very big and bold’

President Donald Trump signaled his support for a massive COVID-19 infrastructure bill Tuesday, tweeting that “this is the time to do our decades long awaited Infrastructure bill. It should be VERY BIG & BOLD, Two Trillion Dollars.”

On Wednesday, Treasury Secretary Steven Munchin told CNBC that low interest rates make it a good time to invest in infrastructure and that he is discussing possibilities with Democrats.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was more circumspect.

“We need to see what the effect of the current bill is,” he told conservative radio show host Hugh Hewitt on Tuesday. “We need to wait a few days here, a few weeks, and see how things are working out.”

He added that he’s “not going to allow this to be an opportunity for Democrats to achieve unrelated policy items that they would not otherwise be able to pass.”