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Warren Fiske
By Warren Fiske October 18, 2022

Spanberger voted to send stimulus checks to inmates. So did Republicans

If Your Time is short

  • Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., voted for the American Rescue Plan Act in 2021 that authorized $1.9 trillion of economic stimulus in the wake of COVID-19. 
  • The bill provided payments of up to $1,400 single taxpayers and $2,800 for joint filers.
  • Republicans denounced the bill, in part because it allowed the payments to go to incarcerated people.
  • But Republicans supported two earlier rounds of stimulus payments in 2020 that allowed stimulus checks to go to imprisoned people.  

One thing is missing from a GOP television ad that accuses Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va.,  of voting to send COVID-19 stimulus checks to people who are incarcerated — the disclosure that most congressional Republicans also voted to allow it.

The ad, sponsored by the National Republican Congressional Committee, blames Spanberger of voting for "wasteful spending," such as "nearly $1 billion in stimulus checks for prisoners, including domestic terrorists." A shaded picture appears of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the Boston Marathon bombers in 2013.

Republicans have aired similar ads in congressional races around the country. They refer to House and Senate votes in March 2021 on the American Rescue Plan Act, a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package that was ultimately signed by President Joe Biden. Among other things, the act provided stimulus payments of up to $1,400 for single tax filers earning less than $75,000 a year and $2,800 to married couples filing jointly who made less than $150,000. Tax filers could get an additional $1,400 for each of their dependent children.

Democrats pushed the bill through Congress on partisan votes, saying the relief was vital. Republicans said the bill was a boondoggle and, during a lengthy Senate debate, offered amendments to put Democrats on the record regarding certain policy points.

Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and Bill Cassidy, R-La., put forward an amendment that would prevent the stimulus checks from going to people in prisons. The amendment failed on a party-line vote. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said it would harm the families of those incarcerated.

"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," Durbin said on the Senate floor. "Children should not be forced to go hungry because a parent is incarcerated."

Imprisoned people qualified for stimulus payments because of broad eligibility requirements in the relief bill — and others before it. All citizens and legal residents who filed a tax return or completed an Internal Revenue Service form requesting payment, were eligible for a check. The act provided 597,000 incarcerated people with stimulus checks totaling $863 million, according to estimates by the Department of the Treasury.

The amendment was defeated and the relief act passed in the Senate on 50-49 party-line vote with Democrats in the majority.

Four days later, the House approved the bill on a 220-211 vote, with Spanberger and all but one Democrat favoring it and Republicans unanimously opposing it. Democrats did not allow Republicans to introduce amendments before this vote because they needed to pass an exact copy of the Senate bill to advance it to Biden’s desk.

Weeks earlier in debate, however, House Republicans had opportunities to amend the bill and did not try to add a ban on incarcerated people getting checks.

Featured Fact-check

While criticizing Democrats for their votes, the RNCC omits that most Republican members of Congress allowed incarcerated people to receive checks by voting for two earlier rounds of coronavirus stimulus. Both the CARES Act in March 2020 and a supplemental package in December 2020 allowed people in prisons to receive checks. The measures passed with overwhelming bipartisan support with the goal of speedily getting checks to citizens. 

The issue of imprisoned people receiving stimulus checks was not new when the American Relief Plan Act came up in early 2021. After President Donald Trump signed the CARES Act a year earlier, the IRS issued guidance saying the relief checks could not go to incarcerated people. In October 2020, a federal judge ruled against the IRS and said the government had to issue the checks because the CARES Act had no language restricting the payment to people in prisons.

This is important because Republicans afterward supported the second stimulus, in December 2020, that also allowed payments to people who are incarcerated. 

Spanberger, who supported all three coronavirus stimulus bills, has no regrets. Justin Chermol, her campaign spokesperson, said she backed the American Rescue Plan because "Virginia families were struggling to keep up with expenses, small businesses and restaurants needed additional relief to keep their doors open, and COVID-19 vaccination and testing sites needed additional support."

Boston Marathon bomber

As the RNCC ad claims, a $1,400 relief check was deposited in Tsarnaev’s prisoner account in June 2021. Tsarnaev is being held in federal prison in Colorado after being sentenced to death for the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing that killed three people and injured hundreds. He acted with his brother, who was killed in a police shootout.

What the RNCC doesn’t say is that Tsarnaev didn’t get to keep the money. The funds were seized to pay criminal fines he had incurred and restitution to his victims. 

Our ruling

An NRCC ad says Spanberger supported "nearly $1 billion in stimulus checks for prisoners, including domestic terrorists."

She did so by voting for the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act along with other Democrats who argued that stripping payments to imprisoned people from the broad bill would hurt their families. 

One of the recipients was Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber. Republicans unanimously opposed the legislation.

The NRCC omits important information: Republicans voted for two earlier coronavirus relief bills that also, among many things, allowed coronavirus relief checks to go to imprisoned people. And Tsarnaev’s stimulus money was seized to pay restitution to his victims and criminal fines.

The NRCC tells half the story and we rate its claim Half True.


Our Sources

National Republican Congressional Committee, TV ad, Oct. 4, 2022

Email from Camille Gallo, Deputy Director, Media Affairs and Strategic Communications for the National Republican Campaign Committee, Oct. 13, 2022

Email from Justin Chermol, press secretary for Abigail Spanberger for Congress, Oct. 13, 2021, H.R. 1319, "The American Rescue Act of 2021" 2021-2022 session

Clerk of U.S. House of Representatives, House vote on H.R. 1319, March 10, 2021

Congressional Record, March 5, 2021

PolitiFact, "Yes, Democrats voted to send stimulus checks to prisoners, as Republicans did last year," March 9, 2021, "Republican Talking Point Omits Key Details About Stimulus Payments to Inmates," Sept. 19, 2022

CNN, "Fact check: Prisoners also got relief checks from the pandemic bills Trump signed and Cotton voted for," March 8. 2021

Washington Examiner, "Nearly $1 billion in stimulus funds sent to prisoners in 2021, 'terrorists and perverts' got $1,400 checks," Feb. 11, 2022, H.R. 748, CARES Act,  2019-2020 session, H.R. 133, Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2019-2020 session

Marco Rubio for Senate, TV ad, Sept. 14, 2022

Senate Leadership Fund, TV ad, Sept. 6, 2022

U.S. District Court, "United States of America v. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev," Jan. 5, 2022

Associated Press, "Judge OKs marathon bomber’s COVID payment going to victims," Jan. 6, 2022 

Department of the Treasury, letter to Rep. Ted Budd, May 11, 2022


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Spanberger voted to send stimulus checks to inmates. So did Republicans

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