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Capitol Correspondence - 02.09.21

What’s Happening with COVID-19 Relief in Congress?

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Congress begins this week facing the double tasks of working through the expedited but complex budget reconciliation to pass COVID-19 relief legislation, and the Senate impeachment trial of former President Trump for his role in inciting attacks on Congress on January 6. The reconciliation process allows the Senate to bypass the filibuster on federal budget, which would allow the Democratic Party to pass COVID-19 relief legislation along party lines. Vice President Kamala Harris, serving as a tie-breaker in the evenly divided Senate, gives the Democratic party a razor-thin majority in the Senate. As a result, this week ANCOR will be heavily advocating for the needs of Medicaid disability programs. Read on to see where the reconciliation process stands and learn about a possible major win for COVID-19 Medicaid disability funding.

Status of the reconciliation process:

  • Congress took necessary pre-cursor steps last week, so we are at the start of the actual reconciliation process. On Friday both chambers approved their own budget blueprints which must now be “reconciled” into one bill on which both chambers will then vote. The Senate passed its version of the bill in the very early hours on Friday, after a process known as vote-a-rama (no, we aren’t making this up). The House finalized its blueprint after the Senate vote.
    • While vote-a-rama is a general term meaning casting many votes on bills in rapid succession, it has become a part of Senate traditions surrounding budget reconciliation. In this context, the votes are on a series of amendments to the Senate budget measure.
  • This vote-a-rama stood out because one amendment served as a temperature read on Senate Democrats’ stance towards raising the minimum hourly wage to $15 over five years. The Raise the Wage Act, which contains the minimum wage increase as well as provisions ending the use of 14c certificates, is included in the House budget measure and therefore could be part of reconciliation. The amendment by Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) sought to ban increases to the minimum wage during the pandemic. The passage of the amendment shows Senate Democrats’ willingness to compromise on this issue.
  • Next steps: The “Byrd Bath.” That is the term for the process by which the Senate parliamentarian decides which provisions can be included in budget reconciliation. Policies deemed as not germane to the budget will be removed, so Senate staff on both sides of the aisle will be making the cases for or against provisions this week – including the Raise the Wage Act.
    • Related read: while this infographic focuses on the 2017 reconciliation process, which sought to block-grant Medicaid, it could be a useful reference on the step-by-step process of reconciliation.
  • Timeframe: Politico Pro reported that congressional Democrats hope to craft the actual budget bill over the next two weeks.

Opportunities, concerns and action steps for ANCOR members:

OPPORTUNITY – HCBS-specific funding: We have heard from our congressional allies that the reconciliation bill is likely to include a temporary $9 billion influx—through an increase in the Medicaid Federal Medical Assistance Percentage (FMAP)— specifically into the Medicaid Home and Community-Based Services (HCBS) system to address the COVID-19 pandemic. ANCOR has advocated on this issue directly and in coalitions since the summer— see our latest coalition letter here.  

CONCERNS – wage restraints within the Medicaid system: Following counsel from members on our Government Relations Advisory Committee, ANCOR supports the goals of the Raise the Wage Act to increase wages across the nation. However, we have been actively educating congressional offices and the Biden administration on the need for Medicaid rates to be raised accordingly to enable providers to comply with that legislation, should it advance through the reconciliation process. It is not a given at this point that the Senate parliamentarian will support the inclusion of minimum wage legislation in the federal budget bill.

ACTION STEPS: We encourage ANCOR members who wish to advocate for COVID-19 funding for Medicaid supports to reach out to Sarah Meek, Senior Director of Legislative Affairs. Her email is [email protected]. Please also stay tuned for our action alerts in the near future.