U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis fielded questions from constituents during a virtual town hall-style meeting hosted by The Greater Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce.
The Aug. 6 online “Breakfast with Bilirakis” meeting, allowed the Republican congressman to share various updates from Washington D.C. It also provided a forum for Bilirakis, who represents Florida’s 12th Congressional District, to listen to concerns and questions from East Pasco residents.
One pressing question involved the timeline of when the next COVID-19 stimulus package is coming.
Bilirakis attributed the lack of action by Congress to partisan politics between Democrats and Republicans. He pinned the bulk of the blame on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat.
“This could be done within a matter of hours if we take the politics out of it, but we all know it’s not realistic,” the Republican congressman said.
“Speaker Pelosi does not negotiate. Right now she feels like she’s winning politically, and she’s not putting the people who are really hurting, that need this assistance first, but, I think she’s getting closer and closer (to coming around).”
Republicans have called for $1 trillion in spending; Democrats have a $3.5 trillion plan.
One key difference in the plans involves the Democrats’ proposal to provide funding for large cities, such as New York and Chicago.
Bilirakis doesn’t agree with that.
His reasoned those cities, among others, “have been fiscally irresponsible for years and years and years,” long before the COVID-19 pandemic.
He put it like this: “Nothing against Chicago or New York City, I love those cities, but the management has been terrible, the leadership has been terrible in those particular cities recently.”
Even with ongoing differences between the two parties, Bilirakis is confident a second stimulus package will pass.
President Donald Trump has threatened executive action to break Congress’s impasse, Bilirakis said.
“I don’t blame him — people are suffering; they need help now,” the congressman said.
Bilirakis also is certain federal unemployment benefits will be extended, but doesn’t expect it be at the $600 per week rate.
“It might be a little bit of a different version,” Bilirakis said. He has co-sponsored a bill to ensure people receiving unemployment will not receive an amount that exceeds the amount they were getting paid while employed.
Need to help, but also to watch federal debt
Bilirakis also addressed the status of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) business loan program.
More funds will likely be added to program, he said, but he noted there is still $100 billion in loans available.
The next round of PPP loans should be geared toward businesses with 25 employees or fewer, he said. There also should be more flexibility to help the restaurants that are hurting, he added.
Bilirakis acknowledged the original $669-billion federal business loan program was put together hastily, during a state of emergency. Its language allowed some corporations, even charter schools, to take advantage of loans not meant for them.
“It was a successful program and we helped out a lot of businesses, but I think we’ve learned that we need to narrow the scope because a lot of big businesses took advantage,” he said.
The lawmaker expressed sympathy for struggling restaurants and other small businesses, too: “My goodness, you have these restaurants that have been around forever and they’ve survived wars, depressions, recessions, and now they’re closing up for good, and we just can’t have that.”
At the same, as COVID-19-related spending packages are implemented, Bilirakis emphasized the need to be concerned about the government’s increasing debt. The national debt rose to $26 trillion for the first time in June.
“I know this is a crisis and we’ve got to help folks, but we’ve got to be cognizant of this national debt, because we’re passing it on to our children, our grandchildren, our great-grandchildren in some cases,” Bilirakis said.
One constituent questioned Bilirakis on why the Trump administration has denied new or first-time applications for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, despite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that blocked the president’s attempt to end DACA.
The DACA program grants protection from deportation of undocumented children brought to the country by immigrants.
Bilirakis responded: “I can’t explain it. Obviously, I’m not responsible for it, but what we can do is pressure the administration and (Attorney General) Bill Barr, to make sure that they follow up.”
The lawmaker expressed support for a single-subject immigration bill to protect DACA youth, but not one with amendments that offer similar protections for undocumented adults and illegal aliens — an ongoing point of contention between Democrats and Republicans.
With that, Bilirakis believes immigrant children will be granted protection at some point, but doesn’t foresee a piece of legislation to pass before the end of the year.
Said Bilirakis, “We should be passing a DACA bill to protect these kids, but the problem is everything’s political. They did nothing wrong themselves and they should not be punished. They only know the United States of America, in most cases.”
Another constituent probed the congressman about what types of COVID-19 safety measures have been put forth for active military and veterans.
Bilirakis explained the Tampa’s James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital and satellite facilities (like those in New Port Richey and Zephyrhills) are offering virtual appointments for primary care and other services. The program is “going pretty well,” he said.
Bilirakis said he is pushing to reopen or expand services at outpatient clinics for veterans, amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’re trying to give them as much access as possible to health care,” he said.
Published August 12, 2020