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Congressional Dems press Lansing Republicans to release 'hard fought' federal COVID aid

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — Democrats in Michigan's congressional delegation are pressing leaders of the Republican-led Legislature in Lansing to stop holding up billions in federal pandemic relief funding allocated to Michigan in the December stimulus package.

The delegation's nine Democrats, led by U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Lansing,wrote Monday to Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and House Speaker Jason Wentworth, urging them to "quickly" work with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to appropriate the funds. 

The U.S. Capitol

They noted that members of Congress worked in a bipartisan way last year on a COVID-19 relief package because the need to end the pandemic "transcends politics." Former President Donald Trump, a Republican, signed the bill.

"It has come to our attention that the Legislature is attempting to withhold this critical funding that we worked so hard to secure for Michigan as political leverage to limit the governor’s powers in this pandemic," the Democrats wrote.

"The plan you recently introduced would leave money on the table that our small businesses and families can’t afford to wait for. It’s simple: appropriating these dollars quickly could save lives and jumpstart our economy."

Sen. Debbie Stabenow.

The Michigan House last week approved $3.5 billion in supplemental spending that holds back some federal COVID-19 funding, and links $2.1 billion in education funding to Whitmer ceding her administration's authority to close schools or stop sports to local health officials. 

State House lawmakers limited to quarterly installments federal dollars for vaccine distribution, testing, food benefits, rental assistance, substance abuse treatment and mental health programs. 

State Rep. Thomas Albert, chairman for the House Appropriations Committee, last week dismissed concerns that the money would be returned to the U.S. government if it wasn't used, arguing that the state had time to appropriate the federal relief. 

“Democrats should be writing an open letter to the governor about this. She’s the one who won’t allow local communities to make their own decisions about whether their schools should be open to in-person learning, and she’s the one not being transparent and accountable about her decisions and spending related to COVID-19," Albert said in a statement.

"House Republicans are simply trying to provide schools with resources to get kids back in the classroom, and make state government more accountable to the people of Michigan, while doing all we can to help the state bounce back from COVID-19."

Senate Republicans have also tried to put pressure on Whitmer, blocking several of her appointments in recent weeks in a bid to get the governor to work more closely with them on responding to the pandemic.

Whitmer urged the Legislature on Tuesday to take action to deploy the federal dollars in full "as quickly as possible," saying that handing the money out in tranches is "foolish" because it could cause the state to fall in the supply-chain priority and lead to a drop-off in vaccination rates.

"This is a very real threat. ... If those dollars aren't appropriated quickly enough, that could be at risk, which means our recovery will take longer, our vaccination rates could decline," Whitmer said at a press briefing.

"Congress did their part. Now, we need our state Legislature to do theirs."

The congressional Democrats said in their Monday letter that they share Republicans' goals of wanting kids back in school and small businesses back on their feet. 

"All of us want things to return to normal," they wrote. "These goals can only be achieved when we all work together. Now is the time to put politics aside and do what’s right for the people of Michigan by releasing this hard-fought funding."

Shirkey spokeswoman Amber McCann said the Senate Appropriations Committee recently held a hearing to learn more from the state health department about vaccine availability and distribution "to understand how to best deploy dollars to help citizens."

"This is one example of how the Senate Republicans are working to ensure dollars are dispersed to support the health of our citizens and communities," McCann said. "I expect more information in the coming days regarding the Senate plan to appropriate federal dollars."

Whitmer's office said it has been "eager" to work with the Legislature to pass a COVID recovery plan that supports small businesses, increases vaccine distribution and helps get kids back in the classroom safely.

"Unfortunately, Republicans continue to withhold billions of dollars that are meant for Michigan families, which has real consequences for those who need it the most and will delay our return to normal," Whitmer spokesman Bobby Leddy said.

"We remain ready to work with the leaders in the legislature to grow our economy by using every available resources because families and small businesses cannot afford to wait.”

Staff writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.