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Essential Politics: Washington’s $900-billion deal, just in the nick of time

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An extra $300 a week for those who are unemployed. A $600 check sent to millions of Americans. New subsidies for struggling businesses and schools.

Congressional leaders signed off Sunday on an overdue and probably still too modest COVID-19 relief package that addresses the most immediate needs of Americans, just five days before Christmas and almost eight months to the day of the last significant pandemic assistance from Capitol Hill.

Lawmakers in both houses will have little time to review the full details of the proposal before the expected vote and delivery to President Trump to sign it into law.

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As for all the other things Americans will need to cope with the deadly pandemic as winter begins, that task will fall to a new president and a new Congress beginning next month.

Washington’s barely-in-time deal

For the nation’s most struggling families, the package offers a stimulus check of up to $600 per person, less for families with higher earnings in 2019. Those with incomes above $99,000 a year would not receive assistance.

For those receiving traditional unemployment assistance, the agreement adds $300 a week for 11 weeks — half the size of the 16-week jobless boost approved in the spring and which expired in July. It also adds 11 more weeks to the pandemic unemployment assistance program, which has provided help for those who do contract or gig work and was set to expire in a matter of days.

The pandemic’s Paycheck Protection Program gets a new boost in the deal — $284 billion for another round of loans to small businesses, with some of the money targeted to very small and minority-owned businesses.

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Other notable efforts include assistance for food, rent and child care needs as well as some $82 billion for schools, colleges and universities.

It’s expected to be the final action taken by the lame-duck Congress. It also was probably the last chance for Trump to have used his often boasted deal-making skills — a missed chance, as my colleagues Eli Stokols and Sarah D. Wire wrote over the weekend. They noted the president will be known less for making deals and more for “a political legacy defined far more by stoking cultural grievances and issuing often ineffectual executive orders.”

What California needs

The agreement will provide at least a modicum of relief for millions of Californians who are out of work or whose businesses are struggling. Educators will be eager to see the details of the money set aside for schools, especially as they look ahead to an uncertain winter of distance learning.

But what California largely needs, it’s not getting at this point: additional fiscal help for state and local governments. Remember the summertime state budget signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom had specific plans to rescind $11 billion in deep cuts and spending delays — most of that for K-12 schools — if additional federal dollars showed up. But local assistance, a key demand of congressional Democrats, failed to materialize.

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One curious provision of the new agreement, reported by Wire in her Sunday overview: “an extra year to spend their share of the $150 billion provided in the CARES Act” relief package from the spring. But cities and counties have long since either spent or obligated their share of that money, reminded earlier this month to do so in a letter to local officials by Newsom.

So while the provision may make sense in some states, in California it will probably look like more than it is — leaving scores of communities without an actual boost to funding public services heavily burdened by COVID-19-related costs.

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Newsom’s political problem: the buzz over a recall

From a purely political point of view, January could be one of the most important months in Newsom’s career — the last chance for some of his most vocal critics to pull off what was once unthinkable: a special election next fall in which voters could remove the 53-year-old Democrat from office.

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There have been six efforts to recall Newsom in just his first two years in office, largely unrealistic attempts led by vocal but unfunded conservatives across California. And as those who watch California politics closely know well, almost every governor in the modern era has experienced something similar.

But the pandemic has dramatically changed the odds on the last recall attempt left standing. The anger in some corners of the state over COVID-19 rules imposed by the Newsom administration is fueling it; a hardly noticed court decision last month that extended signature-gathering efforts by an extra 120 days, through mid-March, has given this attempt an outside shot at triggering an election.

“I think it was a mistake for Democrats not to appeal that decision,” said Garry South, a former Newsom advisor who served as chief strategist for then-Gov. Gray Davis when he was recalled from office in 2003.

The key will be cash. The largely Republican-led effort has only a few weeks to raise at least $2 million to fund an organized effort to collect the final 800,000 signatures or so — maybe more — to qualify a recall election. While it remains a tall order, it’s clear that Newsom and other Democrats see this as a very real threat.

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“He needs to really start constructing a war council that can help him navigate the process,” South said of the governor. “With social media, this thing’s already caught fire on the right.”

National lightning round

— Trump’s dismissive weekend characterization of a massive cyberattack targeting multiple U.S. agencies drew pushback Sunday from lawmakers and cybersecurity experts amid growing questions over the president’s refusal to acknowledge that Russia was probably behind the intrusions.

— President-elect Joe Biden rolled out an environmental team on Saturday that he hopes will steer America toward greater action to curb climate change and protect the nation’s air and water.

— As a candidate, the president-elect promised to restore “normal” government and transform America. To help, his Cabinet will be historically diverse but heavy on Obama alumni.

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— The Army general in charge of getting COVID-19 vaccines to the nation has apologized for a “miscommunication” over the number of doses to be delivered.

— Biden considers an Iran nuclear deal 2.0 as a way to calm opposition as he returns the U.S. to the international pact. It won’t be easy.

Today’s essential California politics

— The Newsom administration is scrambling to find enough medical staff for the increasing demands of the unrelenting pandemic, having acquired just one in 10 temporary contracted positions as of last week needed to treat surging caseloads.

— If Sen. Dianne Feinstein were to retire, Newsom could choose her replacement. That’s a bad idea, George Skelton writes in his Monday column.

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— Speaking of Feinstein, federal authorities filed charges in three newly uncovered conspiracies to cheat California’s pandemic unemployment benefits system that included a fraudulent claim filed under the senator’s name.

— Republicans won back four California seats in the House by aggressively targeting Asian American voters in two districts, knocking on doors when Democrats would not, and talking some Biden voters into supporting a Republican for Congress.

— In a year marked by massive upheaval and anxiety brought about by the pandemic, some Los Angeles leaders and activists are glad Mayor Eric Garcetti isn’t headed to Washington, saying there was little appetite for a change at the top of City Hall at this particular moment.

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