New Hampshire is a state Democratic Pres. Joe Biden carried by a comfortable seven points, in the same election when Republicans won control of the state legislature and Republican Gov. Chris Sununu won in a 30-point landslide. Polls show Republicans have a real shot at defeating U.S. Senator Maggie Hassan in 2022. Redistricting will almost certainly give the GOP the upper hand in the First Congressional District.
This is the political environment Democratic Reps. Annie Kuster and Chris Pappas will be navigating when they cast their vote on Biden’s ambitious $1.9 trillion COVID relief package he’s calling the American Rescue Plan. When Biden announced it late last month, the White House said it would “change the course of the pandemic, build a bridge towards economic recovery, and invest in racial justice.”
For Kuster and Pappas, it will be a test of whether they will toe the party line, or follow the path of moderates like Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) and Krysten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and set their own, less-partisan course.
There’s bipartisan agreement that the Democrats’ package is far-reaching. Indeed, Republicans claim it reaches too far. Even by the most generous definition of “COVID relief,” less than half the monies go to addressing the coronavirus pandemic. Among the spending highlights:
- $422 billion for targeted stimulus checks;
- $350 billion in aid to state and local governments;
- $246 billion in extended federal unemployment benefits;
- $129 billion in K-12 education funding;
- $40 billion to colleges and universities.
Republicans deride the plan as the “Pelosi’s Payoff to Progressives Act.” As Rep. Jason Smith (R-Mo.) ranking member of the House Budget Committee pointed out this week, “less than 9 percent of the spending in this bill goes to crushing the COVID-19 virus and putting shots in peoples arms.” Just $85 billion of the $1.9 trillion goes testing or vaccines.
And while the bill allocates $129 billion to schools, just $6 billion can be spent this fiscal year. Far more education money will be spent in 2025, long after the current pandemic will likely be over.
But polls show the broad outlines of the package are popular, and Republican concerns about adding nearly $2 trillion to the deficit are falling on deaf ears.
For Kuster and Pappas, therefore, voting to hand out COVID checks is the easy part. But on Friday, they’ll also be voting for a lot more than that, such as:
A federally-mandated $15 minimum wage. Including it in the House bill adds weight to GOP complaints that the package has little to do with providing pandemic relief, feeding the narrative that it’s a “Democratic Christmas tree,” as some critics claim. In addition, Pappas has struggled with his party’s push for a $15 minimum wage since first taking office. His family’s own restaurant doesn’t offer a $15 minimum, and he was called out during the 2018 election by Tom Boucher, owner and CEO of Great NH Restaurants, Inc., over a promise not to support an increase in the minimum tipped wage.
“Pappas said, ‘I’m not going to vote for it unless they take out the [tipped wage] credit,'” Boucher said. “And when it came down to the vote, that piece of legislation was still there, and he voted for it. So he flat out lied.”
A new UNH Survey Center panel shows support for the $15 minimum wage has plunged in just the past month as more data comes out showing the wage mandate will kill an estimated 1.4 million jobs — 13,000 of them in New Hampshire.
[UPDATE: On the eve of the House vote, the U.S. Senate Parliamentarian concluded the minimum wage hike shouldn’t be included in the Democrats’ coronavirus relief package didn’t meet the guidelines for reconciliation, the process Democrats are using to pass their spending bill with a 50-vote threshold. This likely makes the House vote on the topic moot.]
Stimulus checks for undocumented immigrants. Under the bill coming to the House floor, stimulus checks will go to families with an illegal immigrant head of household — a change from the previous COVID stimulus checks. Money will also go to subsidize some health insurance payments for undocumented workers. Some Granite State Democrats see payments for illegal immigrants as a political loser. Two weeks ago, Hassan split with her colleague Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and most of the Democratic caucus to vote against giving COVID benefits to illegal immigrants.
Unfair treatment of New Hampshire. A large part of the $220 billion in direct aid to states would be handed out not based on population as with previous COVID funding, but based on a formula that factors in unemployment over the three-month period ending last December. New Hampshire had the eighth-lowest unemployment in the nation in December (4 percent), far lower than Massachusetts (7.4 percent) and New York (8.2 percent). In other words, Granite State taxpayers will be subsidizing their neighbors, and the state will be punished for having looser lockdowns and more economic activity.
“When you look at what states are going to reap the financial benefits of this bill, frankly, they are the worst managed,” Sununu told NHJournal Thursday. “Their unemployment has skyrocketed, and they’re going to get more money than everybody else.”
Porkbarrel spending for powerful Democrats. Included in the bill is funding for projects like $100 million for the Bay Area Rapid Transit in California and $1.5 million for the Seaway International Bridge between New York and Canada, directly benefitting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.
Additionally, more than $1 billion goes to “socially disadvantaged” farmers, $852 million will go to AmeriCorps, $270 million for the National Endowment of the Arts, $200 million to The Institute of Museum and Library Services, $50 million for Planned Parenthood and similar groups, and $50 million to environmentalist organizations.
The political challenge for Kuster and Pappas isn’t that they will have voted for one of these problematic policies on Friday, but in favor of all of them.
National Republican Congressional Committee spokesperson Samantha Bullock slammed the bill, saying, “Chris Pappas and Annie Kuster are choosing Democrat special interests over their own constituents with their support for this $1.9 trillion corrupt COVID package. Pappas and Kuster would rather play partisan games than provide real COVID relief that Granite Staters want and deserve.”
Sununu said Thursday he would vote no if he were in Congress, noting the Democrats’ slim majority gives a handful of members the power to make the bill better.