GRAND FORKS — The next big COVID relief bill, passed early Saturday morning, Feb. 27, is headed to the Senate. And suddenly, North Dakota’s Republican senators are facing a major vote from an unfamiliar position: the minority party.
Since Democrats took the chamber in January — in a razor-thin, 50-50 majority, bolstered by the vice presidential tie-breaking vote — they’ve had the narrow power to pass legislation without GOP support. It’s a new position for North Dakota GOP Sens. John Hoeven and Kevin Cramer, whose caucus had run the Senate since early 2015.
But that same thin margin gives the GOP caucus significant sway, forcing Democrats to keep every vote in line to pass legislation. And as the Senate debate on the next COVID relief bill begins in earnest this week, North Dakota’s Republican senators are skeptical of the $1.9 trillion bill.
“Over the last year, Congress has approved five bipartisan COVID relief bills that have been targeted to address pandemic needs, including $900 billion approved in late December that is still being disseminated to address needs of health care providers, schools, small businesses and others,” Hoeven said in a statement to Forum News Service on Monday, March 1. “The Democrats’ $1.9 trillion package includes too many policies and too much spending unrelated to the pandemic.”
The package includes $1,400 stimulus check payments, distributed based on income, as well as boosted unemployment benefits, more funding for virus testing and vaccine distribution, aid for cities and states and more. Democrats argue the bill is a far-ranging means to provide relief; North Dakota’s representatives see it as a boondoggle.
“Legislation like this is why Americans are so frustrated with Congress. There is more than $1 trillion in previously allocated funding sitting unspent. That money should go to help small businesses recover, support our schools and provide vaccines,” Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., said in a statement released by his office.
Armstrong went on to express frustration with a provision in the House bill raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, a move he said puts millions of jobs at risk. The minimum wage provision, included in the House bill, looks unlikely to make it into the Senate version — scuttled by Senate budgetary rules under which other portions of the bill are being passed.
But despite widespread Republican opposition, the bill appears to enjoy widespread approval — polling at 72% approval in a recent poll conducted for The New York Times. About 83% of respondents called the $1,400 checks important, and about 80% said the same of money for schools and state or local government. The same poll shows Americans divided over concerns of whether the bill is too big or too small.
Cramer’s office, asked for comment on the bill, referred Forum News Service to previous comments, including a recent interview the senator gave to Fox Business network’s Maria Bartiromo.
In that interview, Cramer said removing the minimum wage provision would make the bill an easier sell in the Senate.
“It becomes a little bit more appealing to moderate Democrats,” Cramer told Bartiromo last week. “It’s far from appealing to any Republican that I know so far.”