House Passes Coronavirus Relief Funds; Alabama’s Byrne Is in the Minority Opposing the Spending

WASHINGTON — The House overwhelmingly approved a coronavirus relief and economic stimulus coronavirus-related spending bill Saturday that would spend tens of billions of dollars in stimulus and safety-net spending to cushion the economic and social impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., was among the minority voting against the bill, which passed 363-40. He said in a statement that representatives were given a 110-page bill and asked to vote on it 26 minutes later.

“Although I agree with many of the provisions in this legislation, this is no way to govern. We should be sending a message of calm and steady leadership in the face of this crisis, not forcing through bills in the dead of night,” he said in the statement.

U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., supported the bill.

We cannot fight coronavirus effectively unless everyone in our country who needs to be tested knows they can get their test free of charge,” Sewell said in a statement. “We cannot slow the outbreak when workers are stuck with the terrible choice between staying home to avoid spreading illness and the paycheck their family can’t afford to lose.”

HR 6201 is expected to go to the Senate for debate this week.

Spending in the bill is aimed at cushioning the blow on individuals, families and mainly small and medium-size businesses. It would appropriate $1 billion to provide free virus testing for all who request it, from the uninsured to Medicaid and Medicare recipients to individuals with private medical insurance; $1 billion to expand food stamps, nutrition programs for the poor and meals programs for seniors and K-12 students whose schools were closed; and $1 billion to expand state-federal unemployment benefits while delivering the checks more promptly. The bill also would fund a 6.2% increase in Medicaid payments to states, grant liability protections to manufacturers of respiratory masks and delay filing deadlines for certain business and personal tax returns.

In addition, the bill would authorize two weeks’ paid sick leave and up to three weeks’ paid medical and family leave through December to individuals and households affected by the coronavirus crisis, using tax credits to fully reimburse qualified employers for the cost of providing the leave. Leave payments would have to be at least two-thirds of normal levels. Government employees would receive equivalent leave benefits.

The spending is in addition to $8.2 billion in emergency funding passed into law last week.

A yes vote was to send the bill to the Senate.


Voting yes: Martha Roby, R-2, Robert Aderholt, R-4, Mo Brooks, R-5, Gary Palmer, R-6, Terri Sewell, D-7 

Voting no: Bradley Byrne, R-1 

Not voting: Mike Rogers, R-3 

Here’s how area members of Congress voted on major issues during the legislative week ending March 14.


Renewing Surveillance Authority for Five Years:

Voting 278 for and 136 against, the House on March 11 approved a five-year extension (HR 6172) of three sections of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) that require periodic congressional renewal because of their direct clash with Americans’ civil liberties.

One section allows law enforcement to place roving wiretaps on homegrown or foreign terrorist suspects moving about the United States, and another permits government surveillance on U.S. soil of foreign “lone wolf” suspects not linked to terrorist organizations. Under the third section, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court can authorize forever-secret FBI searches of library, bookstore and business records in the United States if the agency shows “reasonable grounds” the targeted information is vital to an ongoing domestic probe of specifically defined foreign-sponsored threats to national security. This authority is rooted in Section 215 of FISA, a law enacted in 1978 and expanded after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to strengthen government powers to detect and prevent terrorist threats to America.

In part, this bill prohibits the use of Section 215 to obtain GPS and cell-phone locations; requires most information obtained in Section 215 searches to be destroyed after five years; requires the attorney general to approve in writing FISA warrants issued against elected officials or candidates; expands Civil Liberties Oversight Board powers to monitor abuses in the discharge of the FISA law; allows independent outside reviews of certain FISA court deliberations; restricts the National Security Agency’s already-scaled-back collection of meta data on telecommunications passing through U.S. switching points; and requires the government to disclose within 180 days all substantive opinions by the FISA court.

Mike Quigley, D-Ill., said the bill “strikes just the right balance between protecting our national security and strengthening civil liberties. It preserves critical tools used by authorities to investigate international terrorism and foreign intelligence matters, but also makes significant reforms to enhance privacy and transparency.”

Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, said: “We need to fix the FISA court. This doesn’t do it, and I will vote ‘no’ until we have adequate reforms that do.”

A yes vote was to send the bill to the Senate.


Voting yes: Byrne, Roby, Rogers, Aderholt, Palmer, Sewell

Voting no: Brooks

 Asserting Congressional War Powers:

The House on March 11 voted, 227 for and 186 against, to require the administration to obtain advance congressional approval for military actions against Iran or its proxy forces except when there is an imminent threat to the United States, its armed forces or its territories.

The bipartisan vote sent the measure (SJ Res 68) to President Trump and his expected veto. The measure invokes the 1973 War Powers Resolution, which asserts the power of Congress to declare war under Article I of the Constitution. Under that Vietnam-era law, presidents must notify Congress within 48 hours when they send the U.S. military into combat, then withdraw the forces within a set period unless Congress has authorized the action.


Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., said: “The American people have spoken. They don’t want us in endless wars without authorization from Congress, without a debate here in Congress, without utilizing those constitutional powers that our founding framers gave us.”

Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said: “This political War Powers Resolution is based on a false premise. It orders the president to terminate hostilities against Iran. The problem is we are not engaged in hostilities in Iran.”

A yes vote was to send the measure to the White House.


Voting yes: Sewell

Voting no:  Byrne, Roby, Rogers, Aderholt, Brooks, Palmer 


Killing Administration Rule on Student-Loan Forgiveness:

Voting 53 for and 42 against, the Senate on March 11 joined the House in nullifying a Trump administration rule on debt-forgiveness sought by more than 200,000 federal student-loan borrowers who allege that their school fraudulently misrepresented the quality of education they would receive.

The borrowers’ claims have been lodged mainly against for-profit schools such as the ITT Technical Institute and Corinthian Colleges that abruptly went out of business, leaving them with steep debt but no degree and curtailed earning power.

Critics said the Trump rule would provide debt forgiveness to only 3% of claimants. But Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said in congressional testimony it would correct the “blanket forgiveness” of an Obama administration rule it replaced. The new rule bars class-action lawsuits against schools and requires claims to be adjudicated one-by-one by mandatory arbitration rather than in open court, with borrowers prohibited from appealing the decision. The rule sets a standard of evidence requiring borrowers to prove the fraud was intentional.

Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said: “How many times have we given speeches about how much we care about veterans? Here is a chance to vote with the veterans, especially those who have been defrauded out of their GI bill of rights and have ended up with additional debt … . These students were misled by these schools, and these schools are notorious for it. The question is this: Are we going to stand up for the students, many of whom are veterans, or are we going to stand up for the schools?

No senator spoke in support of the Trump administration’s rule on student-loan forgiveness.

A yes vote was to send HJ Res 76 to the White House.


Voting yes: Doug Jones, D 

Voting no:  Richard Shelby, R 


The Senate will take up bills on coronavirus economic aid and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in the week of March 16, and the House is tentatively scheduled to be in recess.