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'We were asking for a lot more': Lawmakers fought hard for Indian Country coronavirus relief funds

As the coronavirus increasingly makes its presence known in tribal communities across the country, a leading Democrat took the Trump administration to task Thursday for resisting efforts to put more money into the hands of tribal governments and federal programs that serve tribes.

In a conference call with reporters, Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) – senior Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies – said the landmark legislation approved by the U.S. Senate on Wednesday would infuse $10 billion into the coffers of tribal governments and federal programs that serve tribes to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

The bill, H.R.748, brings $8 billion directly to tribal governments, plus $2 billion for federal programs that serve tribal nations. The U.S. House of Representatives must now take action before the measure can be signed into law by President Donald Trump.

Udall said several senators and representatives, including Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico), who is one of the first two Native women in Congress, asked for a lot more for tribes.

“We started and fought very, very hard for $20 billion,” Udall said on the conference call. “We didn’t believe it would take care of everything, but we thought that it was a very good number. It got whittled down in the process.”

“At one point, we were getting word of the White House that they would only accept three (billion dollars), but we got it to eight and we’re happy about that.”

Udall, who also serves as vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said the funds approved for agencies that serve tribal governments includes $1.032 billion for the Indian Health Service, $453 million to the Bureau of Indian Affairs to meet tribes’ safety needs and to purchase protective equipment and another $327 million for the Bureau of Indian Education.

Indianz.Com Audio: 'We were asking for a lot more': Lawmakers fought hard for Indian Country coronavirus relief funds

The BIE, which is now funded separately from the BIA by Congress, has been forced to close 183 schools across the nation as a result of the coronavirus.

The package also includes $305 million for Indian housing programs at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. There's also $100 million for the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations at the Department of Agriculture.

Udall said the money for tribal stabilization marks the first time tribes have received such funding.

“For the first time, we were able to fight and get a tribal stabilization fund of $8 billion,” he said. “We were asking for a lot more. We think the need is a lot bigger than $8 billion.”

He said he had a conference call Thursday with 20 Pueblo governors who expressed support for the $10 billion that will go toward stopping the virus’s spread in Indian Country.

“They’re happy about this,” he said. “They feel this is a good infusion.”

He said he is especially happy to see the $305 million for HUD programs that serve tribes. He said addressing problems of overcrowding and housing shortages will be key to stopping the spread of coronavirus in Native communities.

“Indian Country is already facing housing shortages, overcrowding and lack of funding, all of which will be exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said. “The funding made available will help provide emergency relief to tribes to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”

Udall said lawmakers looked back at what Congress appropriated to federal agencies that serve tribes in the federal stimulus packages approved in 2008 and 2009 to decide what to include in this week’s $2 trillion coronavirus relief package.

He said federal lawmakers are now beginning deliberation on relief packages related to infrastructure needs in America and he plans to work to ensure tribes are included in those relief efforts as well.

“I’m going to do everything I can to make sure that vulnerable tribal members and the tribes themselves are taken care of,” he said.

Udall wasn't the only lawmaker who encountered difficulties in ensuring Indian Country wasn't left behind. Sen. Martha McSally (R-Arizona), another member of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said she had to work closely with the White House and Republican leadership in the chamber to keep the $8 billion in the coronavirus relief bill.

"I won't bore you with all the knife-fighting that had to happen here," McSally said on a town hall hosted by several Indian organizations on Thursday, "but I was literally presiding on the floor of the Senate the night that the deal was announced and this fund was still in jeopardy."

McSally said she "went to the mat" with high-level officials from the White House and from the office of Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), the Republican Senate Majority Leader, to keep the $8 billion alive after attempts to reduce it -- and even remove it -- were made.

"I told them, 'We've gotta get this money for the tribes!'" McSally said on the town hall. "It has to happen!"

"They came back and reported to me that we had secured, in the last part of the negotiations, because of that final push, $8 billion," said McSally, who began pushing for the set-aside late last week after the initial bill failed to include Indian Country.

The House is anticipated to take up and pass the relief bill on Friday. President Trump has said he will sign it into law.

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