Variety of last-minute changes made to Senate aid package

Fixes would restore aid to cities and counties; boost child care, Medicaid funds; expand eligibility for rural health care fund and more

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer offered a “perfecting amendment” that was adopted before passage of the relief bill. The amendment added billions of dollars in aid.    (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer offered a “perfecting amendment” that was adopted before passage of the relief bill. The amendment added billions of dollars in aid. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 8, 2021 at 6:00am, Updated at 11:07am

A “perfecting amendment” that the Senate adopted just before final passage of a $1.9 trillion aid package would add billions of dollars for local governments, restaurants and child care grants to states.

The changes came in a 58-page amendment from Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., covering various sections of the wide-ranging relief bill. Further modifications to initial amendment text obtained by CQ Roll Call before it was adopted by voice vote Saturday morning were written into the margins.

The biggest changes involved restoring $10 billion in direct aid to cities and counties, which had been cut from the initial Senate substitute amendment to the House-passed aid bill. The restored funds bring the total for local governments to $130.2 billion while preserving a $10 billion fund for state broadband infrastructure projects that the earlier amendment made room for.

In addition, the final amendment would create a $1 billion annual program, championed by Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden, D-Ore., for communities and tribal governments that have historically been harmed by federal government policies.

In a statement for the record, Wyden cited communities across the Western United States, including his home state, that are situated on federal lands without a substantial local tax base to pay for government services. Federal environmental and wildlife protection laws have sapped rural counties’ ability to benefit from revenue-sharing arrangements involved in extraction of resources like timber, oil and gas.

Eligible communities include counties, parishes or boroughs, as well as the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The fund would presumably benefit communities that have complained of the fiscal impact of Biden administration regulations prohibiting oil and gas exploration.

The money in Wyden’s program is available so far only for the 2022 and 2023 fiscal years, so more would need to be appropriated in subsequent legislation. Of the $2 billion, $500 million would be set aside for tribal governments.

Changes to state, local funds

Restrictions on direct aid to states would change somewhat under Schumer’s perfecting amendment.

Gone is a requirement that the $195.3 billion be split into two tranches, with the second allotment made available 12 months later; instead, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen would be given the optional authority to withhold 50 percent of the funds upfront. The language stipulates that Yellen “shall” exercise that authority based on each state’s unemployment rate.

In addition, the prescribed uses of funds for both states and localities would be revised from the earlier substitute amendment. A restriction on the uses of funds based on the need to provide government services would be tightened to stipulate that states and localities could use the money only to replace the amount of revenue lost during the pandemic compared with the prior full fiscal year.

State and local governments would gain the ability to use their allotments to provide “premium pay” to essential workers of up to $13 per hour, capped at a maximum of $25,000. Essential workers are defined as those “needed to maintain continuity of operations of essential critical infrastructure sectors” or others as designated by state and local officials as critical to “health and well-being” of their residents.

States would also gain more federal help with Medicaid costs associated with providing home- and community-based services. A 7.35 percentage-point boost in the federal matching percentage in the original version would jump to 10 percentage points in Schumer’s perfecting amendment.

State grants for child care services would increase by $5 billion over a decade from the underlying Senate version.

And as restaurants and bars earlier celebrated on Saturday after the bill passed, an extra $3.6 billion for those hard-hit businesses was freed up in Schumer’s amendment, bringing total grants to $28.6 billion.

Disabled children, rural hospitals

It wasn’t immediately clear how Democrats fit all the changes into the fiscal 2021 budget resolution’s $1.89 trillion ceiling.

But there were changes made tightening eligibility for nonprofits to benefit from forgivable loans under the Paycheck Protection Program, which a source involved in the discussions said was how the restaurant grants grew in size. Both provisions were in the jurisdiction of the Senate Small Business Committee.

The flurry of activity on Friday and Saturday that resulted in trimming added unemployment benefits from $400 to $300 per week, coupled with a one-week extension to Sept. 6, also probably freed up substantial extra funds for Medicaid, child care and state and local funds in the Senate Finance Committee’s jurisdiction.

Other health care-related changes wouldn’t cost additional money but would expand eligibility to receive slices of an $8.5 billion fund for rural health care providers and suppliers. For instance, the perfecting amendment would strike a requirement that the parent organization receiving the funds remit all of the money directly to the provider.

It would also expand the definition of rural provider to include hospitals in rural census tracts within metropolitan statistical areas or others that serve rural patients, including in urban areas with fewer than 500,000 residents. Providers of home health, hospice or long-term care services at an individual’s home located in a rural area would also qualify under the expanded definition, as would rural health clinics owned by hospitals or other providers.

Changes were also made in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee’s jurisdiction. The final amendment took $3 billion out of funds set aside for K-12 education technology grants primarily for low-income and disabled children, instead creating a new $3 billion pot for grants under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Of that funding, $550 million would be reserved for programs for preschools and infants and toddlers.

Also, a new workers’ compensation fund for federal workers who came down with COVID-19 between Jan. 27, 2020, and Jan. 27, 2023, removed from the earlier version, would be restored in the final Senate bill. Federal employees who only worked remotely during that time wouldn’t be eligible.

Out of $26.1 billion in the bill for urban transit agency grants, a provision that would have allowed some local transit agencies to claim an additional amount was removed, presumably to more evenly distribute the remaining funds.

‘Injurious species’

And it appears the “Byrd rule” — named for former Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va. — intended to restrict what can be included in filibuster-proof budget reconciliation bills, struck a couple of other provisions in the earlier substitute.

The late amendment removes language that would have restricted access to $10 billion in small-business credit allocations unless states presented plans for how minority-owned and community development financial institutions would participate. A requirement that states draw up plans for how the money would benefit “business enterprises owned and controlled by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals” was also removed.

The amendment also removes prescriptive language on $10 million appropriated for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The agency was supposed to use the money to identify and track species that would potentially transmit pathogens that could make humans sick, as well as “develop regulations to make emergency listings for injurious species.”

The preliminary Schumer amendment would have removed only the requirement that the Fish and Wildlife Service develop the emergency listings regulations; handwritten changes would strike all of the prescribed uses of the $10 million, however. Instead, the money would have to be used under the existing statute governing illegal trafficking in wildlife and plants, known as the Lacey Act.

A final handwritten fix at the end of the 58-page amendment would change the way in which $280 million for Native American community development block grants is distributed. The underlying bill would have made the money available “without competition,” but those two words were struck by the perfecting amendment.

Peter Cohn, David Lerman, Jennifer Shutt and Tia Yang contributed to this report.