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Ernst gives coronavirus aid negotiation update

Senator 'not as optimistic.'

-Messenger photo by Elijah Decious Prestage Foods CEO Jere Null visits with U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst during her Monday visit to the plant.

EAGLE GROVE — Less than three weeks after Sen. Chuck Grassley said a compromise on the next coronavirus aid package is within reach, Iowa’s junior senator divulged the frustrations brought by a stalemate after weeks of negotiations.

“I’m not as optimistic (as Sen. Grassley),” Ernst told The Messenger Monday during her 99-county tour visit to Prestage Foods of Iowa. “Even (with) trying to get a skinny version of the HEALS Act through the Senate.”

After Grassley said one more meeting could bridge the aisle of the two parties under pressure building to the election, Ernst said Republicans are considering more narrow coronavirus relief bills to push past the deadlock. The new attempt is being called the “skinny” bill, for now.

Previously, the GOP-controlled Senate and Democratic-controlled House of Representatives were working with their $1 trillion HEALS Act and $3 trillion HEROES Act, respectively, as the starting points at the negotiating table to determine the successor of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act signed by President Donald Trump in March.

Grassley previously said the two major points of contention were unemployment benefits and aid for lost revenue to state and local governments struggling to balance their books.

-Messenger photo by Elijah Decious U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst signs an autograph during her tour of Prestage Foods in Eagle Grove Monday.

The skinny proposal includes $300 weekly enhanced unemployment benefits through Dec. 27, an increase from the last Republican proposal, but half of what was offered to the jobless until July 31 and what Democrats would like to continue. It offers no new aid to state and local governments struggling with the tax effects of unemployment, business closures and a souring economy. Other elements look similar to the HEALS Act.

Ernst said Monday that while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — long the target of scorching criticisms from both of Iowa’s Republican senators — has countered closer to what Republicans want with a $2.2 trillion package, she is not negotiating in good faith. Pelosi said earlier in August that the high-stakes talks between the White House and Democrats on relief would resume when Republicans were willing to come to the table with at least $2 trillion, slightly under the half-way point between initial proposals.

The junior senator said that Pelosi has, inexplicably, required blind agreement to the bill without articulating allocations. Pelosi has refuted similar accusations from Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.

“She says ‘no, you’ll learn after you agree to the dollars,'” Ernst told The Messenger. “That’s not negotiating in good faith. That’s not what we should be doing.”

After daily phone calls on the issue, Ernst said Monday that “it is looking more and more like we’ll vote when we get back next week on a package,” hoping for stray Democrats in the Senate to bolster its passage but skeptical that Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer would allow them to.

-Messenger photo by Elijah Decious U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst samples pork at Prestage Foods in Eagle Grove during her visit Monday.

As Iowa and its localities continue to top charts on various COVID-19 growth statistics nationally, Ernst also made comment on why infections seem to be growing rampantly in certain parts of the state.

“It’s human behavior,” she said. “Of course, everybody should be following CDC guidelines. … The kids are not following it.”

But asked if Iowa should step up its enforcement of U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to mitigate uncontrolled community spread of the virus, Ernst said mask mandates are simply unenforceable, a resignation that Gov. Kim Reynolds and Grassley have made, too. She cited Polk County Supervisors declining to pass such an ordinance as an example of the impracticality of mask mandates.

In a news release Friday, the Polk County Supervisors sent a letter to the governor to encourage a statewide mask mandate, requesting the ability to do so locally.

“Ultimately the governor of Iowa has eliminated the ability of local governments to enact common sense practices that will protect our most vulnerable residents,” Polk County Supervisor Matt McCoy said.

Trump’s White House COVID-19 Task Force has recommended that Iowa implement a statewide mask mandate to help mitigate continued high levels of transmission.

“When I go outside (in Washington, D.C.), for every every person wearing a mask, there’s five that are not,” Ernst said.

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