Senate Dems Allow $350B In Virus Aid To Cover Broadband

By Andrew Kragie
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Law360 (March 4, 2021, 7:39 PM EST) -- Senate Democrats have amended a nearly $2 trillion pandemic relief package to let state and local governments spend some of their $350 billion in aid on broadband, in addition to directly virus-related expenses.

The latest version of the American Rescue Plan Act released on Thursday would allow states, tribes and localities to spend their latest federal aid "to make necessary investments in water, sewer or broadband infrastructure." Senate Democrats added the line to a House-approved version that would limit the funds to fund pandemic response and replace lost revenues. The funds would remain available through the end of 2024.

The change came in the substitute amendment offered by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and followed requests from moderates in his party representing relatively rural states where internet access can be limited. The text could still change before becoming law.

Schumer needs all 50 members of the chamber's Democratic caucus to pass the bill over unanimous Republican opposition. A pair of procedural votes Thursday saw the evenly divided chamber split along party lines, requiring Vice President Kamala Harris to cast her first tie-breaking votes.

Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent who caucuses with Democrats, pushed for broadband along with Democratic senators including Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Mark Warner of Virginia.

"Broadband is in an integral part of the COVID response," King told reporters Monday. "Kids can't learn remotely if they can't connect. Seniors can't do telehealth if they can't connect. People can't work from home if they can't connect."

"We have a very large number of our citizens, particularly in rural states, who don't have a decent connection," he added. "And we have a lot of citizens where the wire runs right by their house and they can't afford to connect. So those are two things we're going to try to address."

By Thursday morning, the Maine senator was pleased with the changes in Subtitle M.

"I think it's getting close to where I'm comfortable," he told reporters a few hours before the procedural votes. "I believe that one of the most significant effects of the pandemic has been to underline the importance of broadband. If we can do something on that, I think that's important."

The House-approved funding formula to aid state and local governments was also adjusted to benefit smaller states and cities, among other changes. Republicans have generally derided the package as a "blue-state bailout," although it distributes money to all states.

GOP lawmakers also have questioned the need for another massive relief bill after a $900 billion package was approved in December, which included $7 billion for broadband funding and allowed broadcasters to access small-business loans through the Paycheck Protection Program.

While Republicans have sought to support broadband expansion, they have urged deregulation rather than public investment.

Once the Senate approves an amended version of the latest relief plan, the changes are expected to sail through the House next week.

"This bill helps so many people in such a direct way at a critical time," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters Tuesday. "I cannot believe that the people who voted to send it to the Senate will not also vote to pass it and send it to the president for his signature."

--Editing by Philip Shea.

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