US Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, D-NM, was among lawmakers who hastily returned to Washington, DC today for a vote on a $2 trillion stimulus bill to provide economic relief to individuals and businesses in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lujan flew out of Albuquerque last night, caught a red-eye from Phoenix and landed back in DC early this morning. He spoke with SFR shortly before voting in favor of the bill, which passed the US Senate earlier this week. At press time, President Donald Trump was expected to sign the bill by the end of the day.
The lawmakers' return was prompted by a threat from US Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Kentucky, who had said he would require a recorded vote from members, thus quashing a plan to have Congress members simply provide a voice vote. In a nutshell, Massie's plan required members to be there. Ultimately, Massie's efforts failed.
"It's just unfortunate," Lujan said. "It's because of Mr. Massie and he wanted to play these grandstanding games, that he forced members from across the country to not self-quarantine, to get on planes, to travel out to Washington DC at a time when everyone has been told across the country to maintain social distancing and things of that nature. But look, this is the job, this is what we were elected to do. When I saw the concern that he may do this, it was important to me to do everything I could to make sure I got here in time to make sure I could cast a vote."
The timing could have been worse. Earlier in the week, Lujan ended two weeks of self-quarantine "out of an abundance of caution" after he learned he had met the week prior with someone who was later diagnosed with COVID-19. Lujan never developed any symptoms, nor was he recommended for testing. "Others that need the test who have symptoms, that's who should be tested," he said.
The bill itself, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, has extensive provisions but, Lujan said it was a "predominantly corporate bailout bill," when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, first introduced it. "That's where the focus was," Lujan said, crediting Democrats in the Senate and House for shifting the bill's focus onto workers.
While Lujan did not meet face-to-face with constituents while he was self-isolating in New Mexico, he said he spoke with many on the phone and workers' fates emerged as a top worry locally.
"Around Santa Fe, the number of restaurants and small businesses that have been impacted, the number of servers, back of the house, people who prepare our foods…they're hurting right now," he said. "[Constituents] were expressing that to me with…importance and urgency. I was focused on providing help to them, and that's where a lot of my effort and work went into."
To that end, Lujan highlights for New Mexicans two particular aspects of the bill. The first is expanded unemployment provisions, which include an additional $600 per week for the next four months, an additional 13 weeks of federally funded benefits, and expanding eligibility to include workers in the gig economy and self-employed workers.
In addition, the bill includes either direct payment or refundable tax credits up to $1,200 for individuals. Lujan said he also heard concerns from union contractors who work for the national laboratories— electricians, iron workers, plumber and pipe fitters—that they would not get paid as the lab scaled back operations. A provision in the bill allows the Department of Energy authority to retain and pay contractors and subcontractors. That provision, Lujan said, "was threatened up to the last hour."
The bill also directs $200 billion toward the healthcare system, including expanding funding for the personal protective equipment. Lujan said he continues to hear from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham that the state is not receiving "all of the equipment to help our first responders and healthcare providers, so we've been working to push to make sure New Mexico is getting what we need."
Among other items, the bill also includes $8 billion in assistance for tribal governments, $3.8 million for New Mexico prepare for the 2020 elections and a relief fund from which New Mexico will receive an estimated $1.25 billion.
As for what happens next, Lujan said he's concerned the impact of COVID-19—in terms or rising cases and loss of life— since as healthcare experts have said, it's "going to get worse before it gets better." To that end, Lujan said, it's going to be important to follow the state rules and health experts' advice "that we maintain social distance and keep an eye on our loved ones." Still, he said, "I'm worried about what's to come, but also optimistic that we can work together, we can provide more support to impacted people and businesses across New Mexico and across America, and that we will come out of this. But it's going to take all of us working together to be more patient, to be more open to helping one another, provide support to one another, staying informed and taking care of ourselves."