Senate Democrats propose ‘Force to Fight COVID-19’ in next coronavirus relief package

With an economic recovery in jeopardy and a public health crisis that remains unstoppable, a group of 11 Senate Democrats on Wednesday asked congressional leaders to include a slate of health and social service workforce bills to be included in the next coronavirus relief package as a “shot in the arm.”

The senators’ so-called Force to Fight COVID-19 proposal combines seven existing bills, including ones with bipartisan support, that were drafted in response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has strained hospitals and public health agencies, shuttered businesses and left about 30 million Americans to file for unemployment.

“Americans need resources and coordination in order to save lives, end the pandemic, its broader social consequences, and get our lives to ‘normal,'” the senators wrote in a letter shared with NBC News and sent to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.

“We will face future pandemics and other major health threats that harm our economy,” the senators added. “If we do not learn from our experiences with the coronavirus pandemic, we will find ourselves closing down again as we scramble to respond to the next great national health threat.”

The letter was signed by Democratic Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Michael Bennet of Colorado, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Chris Coons of Delaware, Brian Schatz of Hawaii, Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Tina Smith of Minnesota, Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, both of Massachusetts.

Senate GOP leaders are likely to resist aspects of the proposal, and whether it will gain traction as part of ongoing negotiations for a fifth coronavirus relief package remains to be seen.

House Democrats narrowly passed a $3 trillion relief bill in May, while Senate Republicans released their own $1 trillion plan last week with White House support. After in-person talks resumed Monday between top Democratic leaders and the White House, Pelosi told reporters that the meeting was “productive,” but that differences still remain even as “we are moving down the track.”

The Senate Democrats’ Force to Fight COVID-19 proposal aims to help potentially hundreds of thousands of people gain employment in health and social service jobs if an estimated $70 billion in federal funding for state and local governments can be agreed upon.

Some of the bills in their proposal echo that of Depression-era government employment programs that put millions of Americans to work at a time of national crisis.

The proposal focuses on creating jobs that are beneficial during a pandemic or for any type of disaster response, such as testing and contact tracing. The legislation would also expand national service programs for a three-year period, including getting up to 250,000 Americans per year to help fight food insecurity, boost community organizations and improve COVID-19 recovery and response, among other service-oriented tasks. A bipartisan group of 16 senators already support building up the ranks of national service organizations, such as AmeriCorps.

In addition, the proposal would provide scholarship and loan repayment for graduate education of doctors, nurses and other health professionals, and support nursing education in rural, underserved areas and promote health workforce representation among racial and ethnic groups, particularly ones disproportionately affected by the coronavirus.

“This comprehensive proposal will leverage American ingenuity, innovation and determination to execute a national strategy to address and recover from this unprecedented economic and public health crisis, and strengthen our health infrastructure for the future,” Gillibrand said in a statement.

Among the unresolved issues in the current coronavirus relief package negotiations are how to help the tens of millions of Americans who’ve lost their jobs stay financially afloat. A $600 weekly federal unemployment benefit expired Friday after Congress failed to act on a new coronavirus relief measure.

Democrats favor keeping those benefits at $600 per week. The White House believes that such an amount is a disincentive for people to return to work, and Republicans are proposing slashing that figure to $200 per week through September, then instituting a payment formula that would not exceed 70 percent of a person’s previous salary, capped at $500 per week

McConnell on Monday said Pelosi and Schumer must “get serious about making a law.” On the Senate floor last week, he unveiled a relief package featuring trimmed-down priorities that veer from other issues that Democrats want to address, such as worker protections.

“We have produced a tailored and targeted draft that will cut right to the heart of three distinct crises facing our country – getting kids back in school, getting workers back to work and winning the healthcare fight against the virus,” McConnell said.