Speedy House vs. slower Senate: Dems struggle to balance on Biden agenda

Democrats control all of Washington for the first time in more than a decade — but their ability to quickly enact President Joe Biden’s agenda is running into an age-old culture clash between the House and Senate.

The problem starts with schedules: House Democrats have sped more than a dozen major bills over to the Senate during less than three months in session, but the upper chamber is preoccupied with confirming Biden’s Cabinet. That’s not to mention the operational constraints that mean Senate Democrats likely will need several days this week to approve a routine extension for a bipartisan pandemic aid program, let alone the time required to pass bills like voting rights or policing reform.

It’s those procedural differences between the freewheeling House and more methodical Senate that make it harder for Democrats to move at the same pace, despite their insistence that they’re in lockstep when it comes to advancing Biden’s priorities. House Democrats are pushing their colleagues to nix the legislative filibuster in order to get more done. Senate Democrats welcome the House’s legislative progress but are not interested in taking cues from the majority on the other side of the Capitol.

“I learned this early when I got here: I don’t pay much attention to what the House does,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.). “I just do what we do.”

Since Biden took office, the House has passed most of its substantive bills along party lines, leaving the measures little chance of getting through the Senate without the elimination of the legislative filibuster. That list of languishing legislation includes everything from expanding voting rights and labor organizing to preventing LGBTQ discrimination and protecting public lands — bills that would all require support from 10 Republican senators.

The two chambers of Congress have always had disparate natures, by the founders’ design. But the current gulf between the House and Senate’s legislative strategies demonstrates that Biden, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer have yet to decide exactly what parts of their post-pandemic-relief agenda will take priority next.

“It’s very aggressive, let’s put it that way,” West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, the Senate’s most conservative Democrat, said about the House’s litany of more progressive legislation. “Have you seen the $15 minimum wage go through a committee, a process, a hearing, a markup or anything? Tell them to try trying a process some time. It might work.”

House Democrats already held the majority when Biden won, a two-year head-start on legislating that left them with a backlog of bills to pass this year. They held lengthy hearings on hiking the minimum wage to $15 an hour back in February 2019, for example.

The structural and behavioral differences between the two chambers aren't unique to Democrats, and they underscore the Senate's tendency to temper both parties' more partisan impulses. For example, House and Senate Republicans have taken divergent approaches to former President Donald Trump this year and failed to pass Obamacare repeal because of the vote of one GOP senator.

Biden's party swept into Washington this year with an ambitious set of goals that included not just the once-in-a-generation pandemic, but also a slew of party issues that have sat on the back burner for a decade or more, with House Democrats eager to move fast. That heightens the urgency of Democrats' current situation.

“House Democrats have a responsibility to voters to pass meaningful legislation no matter the makeup of the Senate. Everything being passed and sent to the Senate is broadly popular,” a House Democratic leadership aide said.

Senators, meanwhile, are quick to highlight that unlike the House, they also had to confirm Biden's nominees, deal with an organizing resolution that delayed control of committees and put Trump on trial for inciting an insurrection. Calls from House Democrats for senators to push the limits of the tradition-bound upper chamber — first to disregard or fire its parliamentarian after she ruled against adding a minimum wage hike to a budget bill, later to kill the filibuster — aren't convincing their colleagues.

House Democrats "should understand a little bit that we have some different challenges on our shoulders,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.). The House outcry to change Senate rules, he added, “neither makes us more or less likely to. We don’t freelance opinions about House rules.”

Still, the entreaties for Senate change are growing louder and moving higher up in the House Democratic leadership structure. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) is the latest proponent of nixing the legislative filibuster, while Pelosi recently floated to her caucus an exception to the Senate's supermajority requirement for civil rights legislation.

Democrats on both sides of the Capitol take pride in their quick passage of Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus aid package with only one House Democratic defection in the House and none in the Senate. But even that process illustrated that not all Senate Democrats are completely on board with the House’s more liberal agenda. While the House passed the $15 minimum wage as part of its Covid legislation, eight Senate Democrats voted against a similar amendment from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

“We’re kind of in the cheap seats here,” quipped House Budget Chair John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), who’s serving his eighth term in the House. “But I don't think you’d find many dissenters among the Democrats who think that the Senate needs to figure out a way to act.”

Senate Democrats have not yet finalized their agenda for when the chamber returns from its two-week recess in April. Schumer has vowed to tee up Senate floor action on several House-passed bills, including background checks for gun buyers, voting rights, expanding LGBTQ protections and policing reform, but hasn’t yet specified when he’ll do it.

Senior House Democrats say the Senate will need to make a decision soon on which pieces of the party's agenda they’ll move first — and then whether to pursue a bipartisan compromise or move toward a reckoning on the filibuster.

Some House Democrats, particularly on the left, are starting to get impatient after two years already spent in the majority, watching their bills land with a thud in a Senate then controlled by Republicans.

“We won the House. We won the Senate over there. We won the presidency. Let’s get these things moving. There’s no reason they should have that filibuster,” said Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.). “We gotta get rid of the damn thing.”

One senior House Democrat, Colorado Rep. Diana DeGette, said she has not been surprised by the Senate's legislative delay considering the Jan. 6 insurrection, the impeachment trial and its long list of nominees. The pandemic aid bill passed, DeGette observed, at a “breakneck speed” for the Senate.

Still, when asked her reaction to the Senate's pace so far, DeGette said: “I would say, concerned."

Some Senate Democrats acknowledged that they share the frustrations of their House counterparts. Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, who supports scrapping the filibuster, said the clamor to nuke the 60-vote threshold “is building.”

“Thank goodness for the House members continuing their pressure," he said.

As Democrats in both chambers look toward their next steps on the agenda, many lawmakers said it could all come down to what Biden wants most.

“If we didn’t have the White House, I think that tension would be a lot stronger,” said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.). “Even though he’s a few blocks away, he’s closer to the Senate than we are. It makes a big difference.”

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Schumer agrees to two-week delay of Trump’s impeachment trial

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer agreed Friday night to a two-week delay of former President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, allowing the chamber to focus on confirming President Joe Biden's Cabinet and coronavirus relief.

Under the timeline outlined by Schumer, the House will deliver the article of impeachment Monday evening, senators will be sworn-in Tuesday and the trial will officially begin the week of February 8. The framework for the trial comes after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) also called for a two-week delay in order to give Trump time to plan his legal defense.

"The January 6th insurrection at the Capitol, incited by Donald J. Trump was a day none of us will ever forget," Schumer said Friday. "We all want to put this awful chapter in our nation’s history behind us. But healing and unity will only come if there is truth and accountability. And that is what this trial will provide."

Doug Andres, a spokesperson for McConnell, said the GOP leader is "glad that Leader Schumer agreed to Republicans’ request for additional time during the pre-trial phase," calling it "a win for due process and fairness.”

The House managers and Trump’s legal team will spend the next two weeks drafting their legal briefs. Under the trial schedule, the president's team will have until February 2 to answer the article and House managers will submit their pre-trial brief the same day. Trump's pre-trial brief will then be due February 8 and the House will have until February 9 for their rebuttal, which will allow for the trial to officially begin.

Earlier Friday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi dismissed concerns by Republicans that Trump’s legal team wouldn’t have adequate time if the trial started next week after the impeachment article is delivered to the Senate.

“The former president will have had the same amount of time to prepare for trial as our Managers,” Pelosi said, referring to her hand-picked team of House Democrats who will essentially serve as prosecutors in the Senate trial.

"The House has been respectful of the Senate’s constitutional power over the trial and always attentive to the fairness of the process," Pelosi later added in a letter sent to her members, noting that Monday would be a "momentous and solemn day."

President Joe Biden, who has largely left the process up to Congress, did not object to a slightly delayed impeachment trial, when asked by reporters if he supported a February timeline.

"The more time we have to get up and running to meet these crises, the better," Biden told reporters Friday afternoon.

The exact length of the Senate’s unprecedented second impeachment trial is still unclear, though lawmakers of both parties say they expect it to take up less time than the three weeks spent on Trump’s first trial in early 2020. Whether the Senate also brings in witnesses is another open question.

Prior to the agreement, many GOP senators warned the trial would disrupt the Senate’s jam-packed schedule confirming Biden’s nominees and potentially moving to an additional Covid-19 relief package.

“Absent some agreement, we won't be doing any confirmations, we won't be doing any Covid-19 relief, we won't be doing anything else other than impeaching the person who's not even president,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told reporters Friday.

“I think what McConnell laid down was eminently reasonable, in terms of making sure that we got [due] process,” added Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), a moderate who could be a critical vote in Trump’s trial. “The process has to be fair. So yeah, so we gotta get started, I guess."

During the trial, a team of Democratic House impeachment managers are expected to spend several days arguing that the former president played a major role in inciting violence at the Capitol, focusing on a speech he delivered to a pro-Trump rally just hours before rioters breached the complex.

Trump this week began to prepare his defense, hiring attorney Butch Bowers — who has represented several high-profile Republicans in ethics cases — to lead his team.

While Democrats are expected to vote to convict Trump, it’s unclear how many Senate Republicans will join them. Seventeen Republicans will need to join all Democrats in order to convict Trump.

Several GOP senators argue Democrats are stoking further division and are coalescing around the argument that it’s legally dubious to convict a private citizen.

“I think you're opening up Pandora's box, anything they can do, we can do,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a close Trump ally. “You engage in post-presidential impeachment — you're going to destroy the presidency over time.”

But not everyone is on board with that argument, including scholars from the conservative Federalist Society. And Democrats have argued that Trump — or any president — should be held accountable for his behavior while in office, even if it’s in the final days or weeks of a term.

“It makes no sense whatsoever that a president or any official could commit a heinous crime against our country and then be permitted to resign so as to avoid accountability and a vote to disbar them from future office,” Schumer said Friday.

Andrew Desiderio contributed to this report.

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Supreme Court could force Congress into battle over Dreamers

In what is already one of the most turbulent years in Washington, Congress could soon be staring down another crisis — the possible deportation of 700,000 Dreamers.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule in the coming weeks on the fate of an Obama-era program to shield undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, delivering a jolt to Washington amid a global pandemic and historic unrest over the killing of African Americans at the hands of police.

A Supreme Court decision necessitating Congress to act would add another monstrous task to its to-do list this year, while also thrusting lawmakers into one of the thorniest political debates just months before they, and President Donald Trump, are on the ballot.

Many lawmakers from both parties say they support the popular “Dreamers” program, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which has been in legal limbo since Trump’s attempt to ax it in 2017. But they are also openly skeptical that Congress could, on top of everything, finally clinch a deal on immigration reform.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who has long advocated immigration reform, predicted Congress would do nothing if the high court struck down the program. That would make hundreds of thousands of people in the DACA program subject to deportation if the White House and Trump don’t step in.

"Not with this McConnell Senate. It's unlikely that we will do anything to help these young people,” Durbin said, referring to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has said any DACA fix should be accompanied by broader reforms.

It could hardly be a busier election year for Democrats and Republicans, and there’s no sign of it letting up. In the coming weeks, Congress’ agenda includes a potential police reform bill and negotiations over the next — and potentially final — major coronavirus relief package. That’s on top of funding the government and approving a must-pass defense spending measure.

“We’ve had a lot of stuff thrown into our lap since I’ve been here,” said Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), who has supported border wall money but said he needs to study DACA more. “I think there was a thing called impeachment and then the coronavirus and then police reform so, I guess we can handle this as well but I think it would really be a big issue thrown among many others.”

The Supreme Court could leave Congress with a wide range of options. It could overturn the protections for “Dreamers” immediately, phase it out over time, or perhaps require additional regulatory steps from the Trump administration.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., talks to reporters as he walks to attend the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

If the court sends the issue back to Congress to fix with a deadline, many lawmakers say it could actually force party leaders to come to the table.

"We’re hoping for the best, but with the court, they can obviously come down either way. We’re prepared whatever the decision is," Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus said in an interview, pointing to the Democrats' existing legislation.

But, he added, the politics won't be pretty: "The White House tries to use everything as leverage, tries to exploit any situation. We expect that."

“I have learned in my time in Congress, Congress always does best when there’s a deadline,” added retiring Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), a centrist House Republican who has spent years fighting for a DACA fix.

The pressure for swift action, Hurd argued, would be immense if the court does knock out DACA. Recent polling by CBS showed that 85 percent of people support allowing immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to stay, including 73 percent of Republicans.

“If the Supreme Court decides that DACA is unconstitutional, what happens to those 700,000 young men and women? What happens to them, and how much time does Congress have to try to create a permanent legislative fix?” said Hurd, whose majority Hispanic district borders Mexico.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) conceded in an interview that broader immigration reform is a reach, particularly in an election year. But Graham, who has long supported overhauling the country’s immigration laws, said Congress can still act on issues like border security and visas in the near term, and emphasized that DACA recipients need certainty.

“I don’t think you’re going to get comprehensive immigration reform, but I think there’s a ‘mini-deal’ to be had and people are looking for outcomes,” Graham said, who has not recently spoken to the White House about the issue. “I’m hoping we sit down with the president and find a mini-package ... I’m willing to try, but it’s going to take everybody else willing to try and time will tell.”

Wearing a face mask to reduce the chance of transmission of the novel coronavirus, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) leaves the U.S. Capitol following a vote May 18, 2020 in Washington, DC. The Senate is back in session during the COVID pandemic for a procedural vote on the nomination of Scott Rash to serve as federal district judge in Arizona. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

House Democrats say there’s a simple solution — for the Senate to take up their bill from last June to permanently extend the program. That bill, approved largely along party lines, was the most significant immigration bill to pass either chamber in six years, though it has since languished in the upper chamber.

Senate Republicans have said they’re willing to consider a legislative fix, but many in the caucus are also calling for a serious effort to crack down on unauthorized immigration more broadly. And they want to see reforms to visas for foreign workers.

“I do believe it would be important for us to resolve the DACA issue for those young people that are facing continued uncertainty,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who belongs to the Senate GOP’s moderate wing. “I also believe that we need to decide how we’re going to deal with the 11 million or so that are here illegally and I hope that we improve our legal system of immigration.”

But Romney added: “Whether we’re going to pass something in an election year on that topic is I think an unlikely scenario.”

The task of reaching consensus is made more difficult by Senate Republicans' insistence that Trump give his blessing before any bill goes forward. The Trump presidency has had several flirtations with Congress on immigration policy — including two government shutdowns related to the subject — but so far nothing has come to fruition.

And Democrats are still stinging over Trump’s rejection of bipartisan legislation in 2018 that would have provided $25 billion for border security in exchange for protecting DACA recipients and their parents. Last year, Jared Kushner, a senior adviser to the president and his son-in-law, tried and failed to find a bipartisan deal on asylum laws with Durbin and Graham.

During a March meeting, Trump told a group of GOP senators at the White House he wanted to wait until after the Supreme Court ruled on DACA before pursuing additional immigration reform.

Since then, Trump has publicly and privately suggested that if the court does rule in his favor, he plans to dangle the fate of the DACA program in front of Democrats in hopes of striking a broader immigration deal this summer.

"I hope that Lindsey, who actually worked with Dick Durbin to come up with a bipartisan bill, ... would be able to marshal the commitment to support the DACA participants," said Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii). "However you never know with the Republicans."

House Democrats say they’re already bracing for a scenario in which they’ll be forced to bargain with Trump.

“I’m hoping the Supreme Court does the right thing, but if not, then we have to work with the Trump administration,” said Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), whose southern Texas district borders Mexico.

But Cuellar also acknowledged that Congress already has a lot on its plate, rattling off spending bills, coronavirus relief, a defense policy bill and a surface transportation bill.

“The calendar is so full,” Cuellar said, adding that the House’s new voting procedures to protect members’ health in the ongoing pandemic has dramatically slowed down the process of voting. “It just takes a long time to get things done.”

Melanie Zanona contributed to this report.

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McConnell and Pelosi’s next battle: How to help the 40 million unemployed

The debate over whether Congress will approve a new round of pandemic aid is over. Now it’s just a question of what’s in the package.

After brushing off Democrats’ demands for more relief, Senate Republicans now say the next major coronavirus package is likely to move in the coming weeks. And a key conflict ahead will be over how to help the 40 million Americans out of work.

The shift comes as the state of the economy grows worse and more GOP senators call for action. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is already making clear Republicans will not support an extension of the extra unemployment benefits Congress passed in March. GOP lawmakers say the additional aid — which expires at the end of July — provides a disincentive to return to work and some are now proposing alternatives they can rally behind.

Democrats counter that Congress must extend benefits for the millions struggling to pay bills as the U.S. faces its most uncertain economic climate in generations. Regular unemployment insurance, they note, covers just half of workers’ pay on average.

In fact, some top Democrats want to go further. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is eyeing a push to automatically tie unemployment benefits to the condition of the economy, according to a Senate aide — a move that has not been previously reported. Supporters of the automatic stabilizer idea, which Speaker Nancy Pelosi has also publicly endorsed, say it would avoid the political wrangling that could otherwise threaten to hold up much-needed aid.

The divide over jobless benefits is likely to surface as one of the biggest flashpoints for McConnell and Pelosi as they lead their parties in talks on the next major aid bill. The outcome will determine not just how much help goes to the roughly 1-in-4 unemployed Americans but how the parties can position themselves in a fierce campaign where Congress and the White House are up for grabs.

McConnell said in Louisville over the Senate's Memorial Day recess that he is “still in favor of unemployment insurance,” but he strongly criticized the additional $600 each week unemployed workers get under the CARES Act, which he said hampered certain industries’ abilities to bring back workers as the economy reopens.

“What I thought was a mistake was the bonus we added that small businesses all over the country are saying make it more lucrative to not work than to work. That’s exactly the opposite of what we want to do,” McConnell said. The GOP leader also vowed to end enhanced unemployment benefits on a recent call with House Republicans.

Democrats, however, have been adamant that Congress can’t cut off that economic lifeline.

“They’ve said that they don't want workers to get this money that they need to pay rent and groceries,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who negotiated the unemployment provisions in the March package, argued in an interview. “It expires July 31. And we'll see if they want all those workers hurting all summer long.”

The debate over the government’s role in supporting unemployed workers comes amid the worst economy since the Great Depression and as every state has begun a gradual reopening of its economy.

Some businesses — particularly in industries like food service — are struggling to bring back workers whose pre-pandemic salaries don’t match their current unemployment benefits. Other workers have complained that their previous pay isn’t enough to justify the risk of working as a virus that has killed more than 100,000 people continues to spread.

The enhanced unemployment benefits nearly tripped up the $2 trillion coronavirus relief package just hours before it was passed by the Senate in March. Several Republicans, led by Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), threatened to hold up the bill because of the provision, which Schumer called “unemployment insurance on steroids.”

Now even Republicans who were initially open to the boost in benefits are showing little interest in extending them.

“Future coronavirus relief legislation must provide a better system to help make people whole, but not receive more through unemployment compensation than they were previously earning,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said in a statement.

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 20: Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) arrives for a meeting with a select group of Senate Republicans, Senate Democrats, and Trump administration officials in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill March 20, 2020 in Washington, DC. The small group of lawmakers and officials are in negotiations about the phase 3 coronavirus stimulus bill, which leaders say they hope to have passed by Monday. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Collins was one of only two Senate Republicans alongside Cory Gardner of Colorado to oppose a Sasse amendment to cap benefits at workers’ previous salary. The Maine Republican, referring to her state’s Department of Labor, said that at the time she was “informed by both the Treasury Department and the Maine DOL that the only way to quickly begin administering expanded benefits was through a flat rate increase.“ But now, she said “states have had sufficient time to adjust“ their unemployment insurance systems.

In a sign that lawmakers are now eager to spur an economic recovery rather than just extend a lifeline, members of both parties have introduced legislation recently to boost employment with “return to work” proposals.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) is pushing to have the federal government subsidize business’ payrolls during the pandemic. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) has a proposal that would provide workers with an additional $450 a week bonus on top of their current wages as an incentive to go back to work — an idea that has caught the White House’s attention.

“We need policies that encourage those individuals that can to return to the workplace to help get our economy going again,” Portman said in a statement. Top White House economic advisor Larry Kudlow said recently on Fox News that Portman’s plan is “a good idea” and “something we're looking at very carefully.”

Even as Democrats back an extension of the benefits for those out of work, many also advocate for more aggressive plans to save jobs.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) has a proposal supported by moderates and liberals in the Democratic caucus — as well as Schumer — to dramatically expand the employee retention tax credit. A similar provision, from Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), was backed by the House.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 30: Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) returns to the Senate floor following a recess in the Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump on January 30, 2020 in Washington, DC. The trial has entered into the second day of the question phase where Senators have the opportunity to submit written questions to the House managers and President Trump's defense team. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

Warner said in an interview there could be "some collaboration" between his proposal and Portman's, in a sign that some consensus could be found when bipartisan talks begin in earnest.

“A lot of what we’re focused on is those employees who at this point have been furloughed, how you reconnect them, but recognizing there may be some additional time before business generates enough to bring the employee back,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Labor Department is strongly encouraging state unemployment agencies to ask employers whether unemployment insurance benefit recipients refuse to return to work. Under federal rules, once workers accept unemployment benefits, they must take any suitable job offer or will become ineligible, although states have some flexibility in implementing work search requirements.

Most Democrats in the House and Senate have argued that the additional jobless benefits should last beyond the summer. A bill approved by House Democrats earlier this month would extend the extra $600 in assistance through January of next year.

“We are just seeing record-breaking unemployment rates and so many people signing up for it, it breaks your heart. But we have the unemployment insurance that will be renewed in this legislation,” Pelosi said of the House’s recently passed Heroes Act.

Democrats have also argued that lower-income Americans are often hit harder by the economic fallout. Nearly 40 percent of people with a household income below $40,000 lost their job in March, according to a Federal Reserve survey last month.

That compares to just 13 percent of people who made over $100,000 who lost their job over the same period.

Still there are a small number of moderate Democrats — particularly from areas of the country that appear to be suffering more from the recession than from the virus itself — that have privately opposed calls to extend enhanced unemployment benefits. Those Democrats say they’ve heard from employers in their district that are struggling to bring workers back who earn more on unemployment.

“This is an example of where there are two truths,” said Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), who supports renewing the aid and has closely studied the effects on small businesses.

“One truth is that yes, the $600 amplification is going to complicate things for many businesses to re-attract their employees. That is a fair assessment,” he said. “But the other truth is that we have a problem in our country with people struggling to put food on their tables and a roof over their head.”

Rebecca Rainey contributed to this report.

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