WASHINGTON– U.S. Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) joined NPR this morning to discuss ongoing negotiations over the third legislative response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m hopeful that if it comes out of the Senate with a big bipartisan vote that the House will actually take it up and pass it by unanimous consent. That’s what happened in reverse on the last bill. It was really written by the House, and the Senate simply took it up and passed it. If that's what happens here, I think that will give the American people some real confidence that we in Congress can work across our bitter and partisan divides," Senator Coons said.
“I’ve heard from Delawareans up and down my state – by text and email and phone call – who really want us to get this done,” Senator Coons said. “They want the individual direct check support, they want unemployment insurance stronger, they want support for our hospitals and workers, and I think this delivers on that.”
Full audio available here. Full transcript provided below.
Q: Well Senator, the Senate appears close to a deal on this two-trillion-dollar stimulus and industry rescue package as I mentioned, it's been a little contentious how are you feeling about the deal right now?
Sen. Coons: Yes, it was extremely contentious yesterday on the floor of the Senate. Democrats voted against proceeding to the bill until three major things were fixed. After a long night of intense negotiations, I think Senator Schumer, the leader of our caucus, and Secretary Mnuchin have managed to reach productive resolutions and let me quickly cover these three areas. There was 500-billion-dollar fund for bailing out large corporations that had no transparency or accountability in it, we have come together around an accountability board funding the board and making sure that all transactions are public within 72 hours. I think we are at a good point on accountability. There wasn't any significant new investment in our hospitals and health systems to support the men and women who are on the front lines of this pandemic and to strengthen our national public health infrastructure. There’s great progress towards that. And last, state and local governments are facing a lot of the burden of this both because their finances are changing, you know sales tax revenue that supports a lot of state and local governments is plummeting, and when Secretary Mnuchin pushed back by two months the due date for income taxes federally that also pushed back by several months state and local taxes and they're providing much of the support. As someone who was in county government for a decade, I know that lots of the paramedics and the ambulance drivers, the hospital workers, the orderlies, the nurses work in public hospitals. There is robust support for state and county governments now and that has moved us in a very positive direction. There’s also, Todd, two other big provisions: a very robust new unemployment insurance that elevates the benefit and lengthens it for everyone and very strong support for small companies and nonprofits. I'm really optimistic we're going to see an announcement of a final deal soon and a vote, either later today or first thing tomorrow.
Q: Then it has to go to the House, the Senate deal would be an accomplishment for you all because it has been contentious. I have to say this all happened very, very fast. For people who think this bill has taken too long, I’ve never seen the Senate put together two trillion dollars at all much less in about a week. But the House wants a crack at this. The President has been tweeting negative things about Nancy Pelosi and her asks here, what’s going to happen once you set this bill free and House Democrats get a look at it?
Sen. Coons: Well Todd, there are a couple of reasons why I’m optimistic that Speaker Pelosi may ultimately move towards supporting this. One is that there are big positive moves in the bill overnight, if they end up being written in the final language as I just discussed. Second, it’s really difficult to bring the entire House of Representatives back, especially with several of them already testing positive for COVID-19, so my gut hunch is that as long as the values that Speaker Pelosi has been advocating for: protecting workers, protecting our communities and families, investing in hospitals and in schools and in state and local governments. As long as those values and priorities are reflected in the bill, I’m optimistic that she may support it. At the end of the day, I’ve heard from Delawareans up and down my state – by text and email and phone call – who really want us to get this done. They want the individual direct check support, they want unemployment insurance stronger, they want support for our hospitals and workers and I think this delivers on that, so I’m hopeful that if it comes out of the Senate with a big bipartisan vote, that the House will actually take it up and pass it by unanimous consent. That’s what happened in reverse on the last bill. It was really written by the House and the Senate simply took it up and passed it. If that's what happens here, I think that will give the American people some real confidence that we in Congress can work across our bitter and partisan divides.
Q: We’ll see if they return the favor for what’s called unanimous consent. That’s just a long way of saying do it really, really fast. Senator, a lot of people are wondering about the direct payments. Direct checks. They’ve heard about this, now there were reports of roughly $1200 for individuals, $3000 for your average family of four. Where has that landed in the Senate deal?
Sen. Coons: I will tell you I’m not certain of the exact amount. What you just described is more likely true. A number of us in the Senate were fighting hard for there to be a conditions-based repeat payment. So 12 to 15 hundred dollars initially, but then make it clear that if this pandemic and if mass unemployment continues for several months then there will be a second and third payment. I think ultimately that’s not in this deal. It is an initial single payment of about the dollar amounts you just described, distributed as quickly as possible by direct deposit to people below a certain income threshold. The initial Republican approach had a larger payment for those who earn higher incomes, we managed to reverse that so it was a single payment to everyone below a smaller cap. We’re trying to get money to those who are most vulnerable for job loss or for personal or social impact as a result of this, and I think that’s where this is going to end up.
Q: So a one-time payment then raises the question of how long it will be before Congress is going to have to come back with more stimulus. Now that the President has started making loud noises since yesterday or the day before about ending recommendations for isolation measures, he says getting the economy moving. He wants to turn the economy back on. This debate is starting to develop. The White House is floating trial balloons, sort of this dichotomous choice between economy and public safety. How do you view where this is going?
Sen. Coons: Well Todd, one of the most important things for an elected official is to know what you don’t know, and in my time in county government where I had emergency response capabilities and responsibilities, I listened to the professionals in public health and in public emergency management, so my hope is the President Trump will listen to folks like Doctor Birx and Doctor Fauci. It is true that we are currently shutting down whole states and whole sections of our economy and that has big economic consequences and we should be able to reopen some parts of our economy and society if our public health officials say we’ve managed to isolate and contain this virus. But I would be very hesitant of making any such movement until public health officials, epidemiologists, scientists say that it’s the wise thing to do.
Q: What can the President actually do here. You know he doesn’t have an economy switch in the Oval Office. He can’t restart the economy; he can’t make the governor of California lift the state of emergency and lift the shelter in place order there. Is he just trying to apply political pressure to lawmakers and others around Washington to start to think about loosening restrictions?
Sen. Coons: Todd, I think that’s right. The good news here I think is that you know the President who has moved to saying ‘I’m a wartime president’ and then talked about the Defense Production Act is now today using it to try and mobilize our industrial base to manufacture more of the things we really need like personal protective equipment. But when it comes to closure orders for schools and for businesses, those are really being issued by mayors and governors and that’s part of our federal system of distributed governmental power and my hope is that the governors and mayors will make these decisions informed by their directors of public health and in consultation with FEMA and the CDC.
Q: Well Senator I want to take just a minute before we go to talk about your own health and your own safety. You mentioned that several members of the House have tested positive, your colleague, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, has tested positive for coronavirus, but the Washington Post reports that for six days while his test results were pending, Senator Paul did regular Senator things. He was talking to colleagues, he was roaming Capitol Hill, he played a round of golf, he used the Senate gym there on Capitol Hill. How are Senators reacting to this? Are any of them worried about their own safety?
Sen. Coons: Well you know another colleague of ours, Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, her husband has tested positive and is hospitalized so a combination of staff for one member, a spouse of another member, and Senator Paul makes this very personal and very real for all of us who work in the Capitol complex. And our first concern has to be the health and safety of those who work with us and those who serve with us. I do think that there will be some comment and concerns about how people work and how long they work and how quickly they get tested, but what I’d like to focus this on is moving forward and making sure that all of us are engaging in appropriate practices. Washing our hands regularly, covering any cough, getting tested if we’re symptomatic, staying home if we’re symptomatic and if we do all of that, we will not just get through this pandemic, but we have some chance of improving our annual flu season as well. Todd, if I could make one other comment, we don't have a provision in the Senate for emergency voting remotely. I’ve joined a bill that would give the power to the Majority Leader and Minority Leader to agree on an emergency remote voting process, but one of the things that I’ve really pushed for is our states having vote by mail capability. That’s something I was really trying to get done on this stimulus package. There will be some funding but no authorization, that’s a fight I’m going to have to continue because I’m concerned about how many states are delaying their elections, and I’m concerned about our November election.