Senate Republicans Unveil Latest COVID Aid Package as Bicameral Negotiations Remain Stalled

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Staff Reporter 

Senate Republicans on Tuesday unveiled their latest iteration of a coronavirus aid package, a narrowed down version of their opening relief effort and plan to consider the measure as soon as this week.

The measure would provide an Education Stabilization Fund with $105 billion for programs housed under the Department of Education (ED), and just over $29 billion directed to the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF), which would provide grants directly to institutions of higher education, based largely on the enrollment of full-time equivalent (FTE) Pell Grant recipients. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said that Democrats have been stalling relief efforts by objecting to their initial proposal — the Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection, and Schools (HEALS) Act — offered in July, and has accused Democrats of holding the country hostage for partisan gain with the impending 2020 presidential election coming into focus. 

“Today, the Senate Republican majority is introducing a new targeted proposal, focused on some of the very most urgent healthcare, education, and economic issues. It does not contain every idea our party likes. I am confident Democrats will feel the same,” McConnell said. “Yet Republicans believe the many serious differences between our two parties should not stand in the way of agreeing where we can agree and making law that helps our nation.”

This latest scaled down proposal borrows heavily from provisions incorporated into Senate Republicans Delivering Immediate Relief to America’s Families, Schools and Small Businesses Act as well as their Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection and Schools (HEALS) Act in terms of the HEERF funds distribution, with 85% of the funds to be distributed to institutions based 90% on the enrollment of FTE Pell Grant recipients who were not exclusively enrolled in distance education at the onset of the pandemic, and 10% on FTE non-Pell Grant recipients who were not exclusively enrolled in distance education.

Of the $29 billion in HEERF funding, 10% would be distributed to historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and minority-serving institutions (MSIs) to address needs directly related to COVID-19, and the final 5% would be directed to institutions that the secretary of education determines to have “the greatest unmet needs related to coronavirus.”

While the bill allows institutions to use the funds to defray costs they incurred due to the coronavirus and to provide emergency financial aid grants to students, including those exclusively enrolled in distance education, the bill does not specify a portion that must be distributed directly to students. The bill broadens allowable uses of funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, only specifying that costs must be associated with coronavirus, and does not address student eligibility for emergency grants except for students enrolled exclusively in distance education.

Institutions subject to the endowment tax, not including work colleges, would have allocations reduced by 50% and would only be permitted to use funds for emergency grants to students. 

The bill also creates a $5.25 billion Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEERF). The GEERF allows ED to make supplemental Emergency Education Relief grants to the governor of each state upon completion of an approved application. The funds can be used to provide emergency support to educational agencies, including institutions of higher education, that have been deemed most significantly impacted by coronavirus. The grants received could be used to aid the agency or institution in providing educational services and support the agency’s or institution’s ongoing functionality. 

The measure does not build on the student loan relief implemented through President Donald Trump’s recent executive order and ED’s official announcement that student loan borrowers' federal loan payments will be automatically paused through December 2020, interest-free, with no opt-in request needed.

However, this new Republican package has little to no buy-in from Senate Democrats, and while the effort is likely to clear some procedural hurdles, it is unlikely to go anywhere due to Democrats’ strong opposition to what they say is a ‘narrow’ effort that does not provide adequate funding for a number of sectors.

“This emaciated bill is only intended to help vulnerable Republican Senators by giving them a ‘check the box’ vote to maintain the appearance that they’re not held hostage by their extreme right-wing that doesn’t want to spend a nickel to help people,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a joint press release with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) which also called for a bipartisan legislation to address a number of urgent needs. 

Democrats continue to urge for consideration of their relief package, which the House passed in May and would, among other things, direct more than $37 billion to higher education institutions.

It’s unclear whether congressional negotiations will breach this summer-long stalemate, but with the country facing a federal spending deadline of September 30, it is possible that a number of relief policies will come up during negotiations over a planned continuing resolution, especially if the stalled relief talks do not yield a result.


Publication Date: 9/8/2020

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