Fact check: The GOP is attacking COVID relief it once supported

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Senate Republicans previously supported giving stimulus payments to incarcerated Americans — when Donald Trump was in office.

A series of new ads by the National Republican Senatorial Committee accuses vulnerable Democratic incumbents of voting to give pandemic relief checks to notorious criminals. But a year before, nearly every Senate Republican repeatedly voted to do the same thing.

The minute-long spots feature Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL), the chair of the Senate GOP's campaign arm, accusing Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Mark Kelly (D-AZ),  Raphael Warnock (D-GA), and the rest of the Democratic caucus of voting to send $1,400 pandemic relief checks to convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and convicted sexual abuser Larry Nassar.

"They are criminals who received stimulus checks from your tax dollars," Scott said in the ad. "If that doesn't tick you off, nothing will."

The attacks are both misleading and hypocritical.

Scott and the Senate GOP unanimously opposed President Joe Biden's American Rescue Plan, which provided $1,400 relief payments to most Americans.

Last March, Democrats voted down a GOP amendment proposal to stop any incarcerated person from receiving those funds.

"Given the stark racial disparities in our criminal justice system, this would cause the most harm to Black and brown families and communities already harmed by mass incarceration," Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) said at the time. "Children should not be forced to go hungry because a parent is incarcerated."

The Prison Policy Initiative has defended giving stimulus funds to incarcerated people — many of whom are serving time for nonviolent, low-level offenses. According to a 2017 report from The Sentencing Project, "Nearly half (46%) of people incarcerated in state prisons in 2015 were convicted of nonviolent drug, property or public order crimes."

In May 2020, they noted that "many incarcerated people will be released soon (especially people in jail, where stays tend to be for short periods). Navigating the financial hurdles of post-incarceration life is difficult even in normal times" and that such help can "protect the health and well-being of those behind bars and provides relief to their loved ones at home."

Last April, the Treasury Department made clear in a letter that states and localities could garnish the stimulus payments to incarcerated people who owed restitution to victims and their families, meaning that those funds would go toward making victims whole.

Tsarnaev, for example, owes more than $101 million in criminal restitution. Federal prosecutors have asked that his relief check goes toward that.

But while Scott and other Senate Republicans opposed letting people who were in jail or prison receive stimulus funds under Biden, they voted for pandemic stimulus checks that went to them a year earlier — when President Donald Trump was in office.

In March 2020, the Senate voted 96-0 to pass a $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief bill. It provided $1,200 stimulus checks — with Trump's name printed on them — to Americans, including incarcerated individuals. Scott voted yes, as did every other Republican senator present.

That December, the Senate approved another round of relief checks — $600 per person — on a 92-6 vote. Scott voted no, but the vast majority of his party voted for the legislation. Like the March bill, nothing in that legislation stopped the funds from going to the same incarcerated people the GOP now attacks as undeserving "criminals."

A March 2021 Morning Consult poll found about 79% of American voters — and even 67% of Republicans — backed the $1,400 relief check provision in the stimulus bill.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.