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Blumenthal shares hopes for next COVID-19 package

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., was the featured speaker at the virtual business breakfast the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut hosted Tuesday, discussing his hopes for future federal COVID-19 aid, and answering questions about funding for infrastructure, education and mental health providers.

Congress has passed four coronavirus relief packages so far, on a bipartisan basis. The U.S. House of Representatives passed the $3 trillion HEROES Act on May 15, but it has not passed in the Senate, which returns from a two-week recess on Monday.

"Do I think it will pass? I think some part of it will pass," Blumenthal said, adding that he thinks Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — who in May dismissed it as a "liberal wish list" — will take some parts and negotiate others.

Blumenthal wants to see an extension of federal unemployment insurance, which expires at the end of July, though he did say Congress will "have to consider the difficulties that some businesses have encountered because of the incentives to stay home rather than go to work."

He said hospitals need more support beyond the $175 billion allocated in the Provider Relief Fund through the CARES Act.

In the call Tuesday, he also advocated for hazard pay to reward and retain certain essential workers, a compensation fund for front-line workers similar to what was enacted after 9/11, and more aid to state and local governments.

Responding to a question about mental health and homelessness, Blumenthal noted the HEROES Act would "provide billions of dollars in rental assistance to prevent eviction," and that he thinks we have to invest in more mental health professionals.

Tiffany Thiele, national media relations manager for Connecticut College, asked about the likelihood of additional funding for K-12 schools, colleges and universities.

"I think there is a good prospect that they will receive additional funding," Blumenthal said, adding that the previous funding is "probably not nearly enough for the investment that's going to be required."

Lori Robishaw, executive director of the La Grua Center, asked about the chances of seeing funding for the arts and culture industry. Blumenthal said he's working on programs that the Senate could maybe add to the HEROES Act.

Outside of discussions on the coronavirus, Blumenthal said he hopes the Senate will pass the National Defense Authorization Act its first week back in session. There are differences in the House and Senate versions, but he said both are "very, very good for Electric Boat, for the region and for the supply chain."

Chris Riley of Norwich Public Utilities asked about the prospects for "large-scale federal investment in infrastructure." Blumenthal responded that the Senate probably won't get to it this session but predicted it "will be at the top of the list next session."

Bill Stanley, vice president of government and community relations at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital, asked if the senator has a preference for Joe Biden's pick for vice president.

Blumenthal said he doesn't think Biden could go wrong with Sens. Tammy Duckworth, Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris. He said any of those three — and some others, such as U.S. Rep. Val Demings, D-Florida — are "really first-rate and would add immeasurably."

The senator also briefly talked about the ongoing protests for racial justice and expressed his support for Crystal Caldwell, the Black woman attacked while working at the Quality Inn in Mystic on June 26. Just as the chamber event was starting Tuesday, Stonington police announced that the suspects had been extradited to Connecticut and released on bond.

e.moser@theday.com

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