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Assembly Republicans pass likely doomed COVID-19 relief package

Assembly Republicans pass likely doomed COVID-19 relief package

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Assembly Republicans on Thursday passed a divisive COVID-19 package that already lacks support from the Senate’s GOP members and faces a likely veto by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers if it reaches his desk.

While the legislative package passed the Republican-led Assembly 56-34 along party lines, the bill appears destined to stall in the Senate, where Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, has indicated Republicans, who control the chamber, are not all on board with the proposal.

A package as vast as the Republicans’ 44-item proposal typically includes hours of floor discussion, but Thursday’s debate was limited to one hour. The Assembly was scheduled to begin discussions at 11 a.m., but ultimately didn’t convene until after 12:30 p.m.

Legislators were asked by GOP leadership to wear face coverings during the session, but were allowed to remove them when speaking. Several Republican lawmakers, including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, spoke without a mask. The large majority of Democratic lawmakers, some of whom wore both masks and face shields, remained in the lobby or Assembly gallery during much of the session.

Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, described the bill as “a political exercise that is kind of being made for chest pounding and talk radio.”

“Today again is more of a political exercise for a bill that is not going to become law, that includes ideological measures that have very little to do with comprehensive public health policy,” Hintz said.

Speaking Wednesday on News/Talk 1130 WISN, Vos said he couldn’t speak for Senate Republicans but added, “every single thing that’s in this bill we have been negotiating with Sen. LeMahieu.”

“I certainly know that they are in the same place that we are on every one of these provisions or at least the vast, vast majority, so my hope is we’ll be able to take it up on Thursday and they’ll do so right after we do,” he said.

But LeMahieu told the Wheeler Report on Wednesday that Republicans in the Senate have not reached a consensus on the package.

“There is a reason that was an Assembly bill and not a Senate bill,” LeMahieu said.

In a statement Thursday, Sen. Stephen Nass, R-Whitewater, said he wouldn’t support a COVID-19 relief bill that doesn’t reopen state government, give funding priority to schools that provide in-person classes, require school districts that have been operating online since September to compensate parents and “prohibit the excessive powers of both state and local public health bureaucrats to control every aspect of our daily lives.”

Assembly Republicans initially proposed COVID-19 legislation late last year that would have forced school districts to pay $371 to each student’s family if it has offered at least 50% online instruction since September. However, that item was ultimately dropped from the latest package. Nass told the The (Racine) Journal Times in December that the bill must include compensation to parents of students who have attended mostly online classes in order to gain his support.

“We should not rush to pass a feel-good bill for politicians or special interests,” Nass said. “Instead, we should continue working to get a bill that meets the needs of families and protects the civil liberties of our constituents.”

The Assembly Republicans’ package was unveiled on Monday, almost two weeks after Evers proposed his own COVID-19 bill, and includes several items on the governor’s list, such as providing the GOP-led budget committee the ability to spend up to $100 million on COVID-19-related expenses, extending the waiver of the state’s one-week waiting period for unemployment claims and a pledge to address the state’s unemployment claim backlog.

Republicans did remove a measure originally floated last year that would give the Legislature authority over the state’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout. The item was dropped because Evers was unlikely to support it.

However, Republicans also have included several items Evers has described as “poison pills,” such as preventing local health officers from issuing coronavirus restrictions for more than two weeks without additional subsequent approval and requiring two-thirds approval by school boards to offer online-only instruction. The GOP package also would prevent employers from requiring workers to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

Another measure would grant the GOP-led Legislature authority over how future federal aid dollars are spent through June 30 — which Evers and Democratic lawmakers have opposed.

Evers, who had been calling on Republicans to take up a vote on different legislation he has dubbed a “compromise bill,” said on Tuesday he was disappointed in the GOP package. He added that “the likelihood of a veto is probably pretty strong” if certain items remain in the package.

The Assembly also passed on a voice vote a resolution supporting peaceful protests while stating that “political violence in any form has no place in the American system of government and should never be tolerated.”

Vos said the resolution was in response to Wednesday’s insurrection by President Donald Trump’s supporters at the U.S. Capitol, as well as riots in cities such as Kenosha last year.

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