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As lawmakers continue to spar, second round of pandemic relief remains in limbo

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WASHINGTON — Republican senators from Iowa and Nebraska were pointing fingers across the aisle last week when asked about the lack of progress on a new round of pandemic relief.

Democrats have noted the House passed its legislation months ago, while the Senate hasn’t even taken votes on the latest round of stimulus measures.

But Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., said her side wanted to wait and see what was and wasn’t working from previous efforts that appropriated trillions of dollars.

“I think the answer is to find the programs that are effective, find the programs that are needed, find how we can truly offer relief to families and individuals and businesses, but then get on the road to recovery,” Fischer told The World-Herald.

Democrats have criticized President Donald Trump and his administration for his handling of the pandemic, but Fischer said that in her opinion “they’ve done a good job.”

One main sticking point between the parties: the $600-a-week federal unemployment benefits that recently expired. Democrats want to keep that level while Republicans have argued that serves as a disincentive for people to return to work.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said Democrats want to spend too much.

“We don’t think you need $3 trillion to do it, that we can do a pretty good job with $1 trillion,” Grassley said.

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said “We are ready to negotiate. They are not willing to do so.”

In the midst of the deadlock, Fischer introduced legislation aimed at making it easier to access federal grants related to mental health, given the rise in anxiety and depression in the face of the virus.

One note of bipartisan accomplishment is the Great American Outdoors Act, which was signed into law last week by President Donald Trump.

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., has been a chief proponent of the new conservation measure and scored a coveted invitation to the signing ceremony. There was one minor hiccup, however, when the White House identified Fortenberry as a representative of Louisiana.

Calming vaccine fears

Scientists are working hard to develop a vaccine that will help stop the spread of the coronavirus and protect the most vulnerable. But many Americans have indicated they won’t take the vaccine. Some have even expressed concern that the government might try to mandate vaccinations.

During a telephone town hall last week, Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., was asked whether he would support military-enforced mandatory vaccinations. The retired Air Force brigadier general said he would not, but he also talked about the importance of people getting the vaccinations.

“As a military guy, I have had every vaccine you could possibly get,” Bacon said. “I’ve been through the line where you’re getting shot in both arms and I think it has contributed to good health.”

He said “there’s always some risk” but that the greater risk would be in people not being vaccinated against the virus.

“I hope we can produce a vaccine for COVID-19, and I’ll volunteer to take it when my time is right,” Bacon said, referring to the fact that he’s not among the most vulnerable who should get priority.

Sarah’s Law blocked

Both of Iowa’s senators were on the Senate floor last week attempting unsuccessfully to pass what is known as Sarah’s Law, a bill that would require federal immigration officials to detain individuals in the country illegally and charged with crimes resulting in death or serious bodily injury.

The proposal is named for Sarah Root, 21, who had just graduated from Bellevue University when she was killed in a crash in Omaha. Authorities say Eswin Mejia was in the country illegally and drag racing while intoxicated when he caused that crash. Mejia was arrested but disappeared after being released on bail. He remains at large.

Ernst said the bill “recognizes the simple fact that all criminals should be held accountable for their actions and not simply allowed to slip back into the shadows.”

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., blocked the bill’s passage. Udall offered his condolences to the Root family and said that he has worked in a bipartisan fashion to stop drunk driving.

But he said Ernst’s bill would do nothing to improve the immigration system.

Rather, he said it would impose a “judicially unreviewable” detention on immigrants who had been charged but not convicted — an approach he described as inconsistent with due process.

“This bill uses a tragedy to paint immigrants as more dangerous than other people, which is false by all available data,” Udall said.

White House acceptance speech

As both parties prepare for their nominating conventions later this month, Iowa finds itself once again defending its first-in-the-nation caucus status.

And with both gatherings expected to be largely virtual, the two nominees are looking for venues from which to deliver their acceptance speeches remotely.

President Trump has suggested he could deliver his speech from the White House itself — a move critics say would be inappropriate.

Ernst said she doesn’t think Trump should deliver his speech at the White House and floated an alternative location — Des Moines.

“Of course we could really use that economic boom,” Ernst told reporters. “Just send President Trump in and we’ll find a place for him to give his acceptance speech.”

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