Statement On The Need For A Comprehensive COVID Relief Bill

. . . . Senate Floor

We are in the middle of the most devastating public health crisis in modern history, and the American people are paying a terrible price.  Nearly 220,000 people have died in just ten months.  That is significantly more than the number of Americans who died in the Korean, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan wars combined. 

Remember when President Trump called himself a “war president”?  Has he acted like one?  He called the virus a hoax, and he’s been AWOL ever since.   

Millions have lost their jobs and are struggling to make ends meet.  People are being evicted from their homes, they are living in their cars, in shelters or on the street, and relying on the generosity of others.  And the virus is still not remotely under control.  The need for another comprehensive emergency funding bill to address the COVID crisis is obvious and urgent, as it has been for five months.   

And what is the Senate doing?  Staging show votes on COVID relief bills that the Majority Leader knows will go nowhere, and going back on their word to rush through the nomination of a Supreme Court Justice less than two weeks before an election and after millions of Americans have already voted. 

Where are their priorities?

I know where mine are.  They are with the families of the 220,000 Americans who have lost their lives to this virus.  They are with the thousands of Vermonters and the millions more across the nation who have lost their jobs during this pandemic.  They are with the small business owners struggling to stay afloat during this crisis.  They are with the fathers and mothers who are wondering if they will be able to pay next month’s rent or put food on the table.  They are with the children struggling to learn through zoom calls and online classes. 

This is a national disaster that requires real solutions.  We need a comprehensive bill to address this problem.  We cannot do this piecemeal, as Senator McConnell seems to want to do.  We cannot pass an inadequate bill today on the chance that maybe we will come back and fix it later.  That is not how this place works, and everyone knows it.  We have one chance in what remains of this year to get this right and we owe it to the American people to try. 

Yesterday, Senator McConnell staged a show.  Instead of bringing up a comprehensive proposal for COVID relief and opening it up for debate, he called for a process vote on only one aspect of COVID relief – the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).  I support this program.  It has been critical in keeping literally thousands of Vermont small businesses afloat.  But the majority’s proposal on PPP falls flat.  It ignores critical improvements to the program that would be made by considering the HEROES Act – expanding access to all nonprofits, making critical access hospitals eligible for PPP, and addressing arbitrary caps on various loan programs to help small businesses.

More importantly, providing more funding for this program and nothing else would not remotely solve the daunting problem facing our country today, and it will not fix the economy.  The economy will not come back until the American people have confidence that the virus has been vanquished.  We need more funding for the PPP program, I agree.  But we need to fix that program, and do so much more.  We need to invest more in testing and it needs to be based on a national testing and contact tracing strategy so we can quickly identify cases and isolate those exposed.  How many times do we have to say this?

We need to develop a vaccine distribution program NOW, so it can be up and running as soon as a vaccine is available in order to get it to as many people as possible, as quickly as possible. 

We need to provide personal protective equipment to those on the front line fighting the virus. 

We need to ensure our hospitals have the resources they need to take care of the ill. 

We need to keep our nursing homes safe and virus free. 

Doing targeted bills aimed at one sector is the way to avoid doing what is really needed.  It also picks winners and losers at a time when everyone is struggling. No matter how much aid we give to small business, or to the airlines, or to our struggling restaurant industry, our economy will not come back until we have this virus under control.   

That is why we need a comprehensive bill, and the so-called McConnell “skinny” bill we are voting on today is not it.  This bill is woefully inadequate.  It provides only $500 billion dollars for COVID relief, less than half of what even the Trump Administration proposed just a month ago, and leaves out funding for many critical programs. 

Lines at food banks have sky-rocketed during this crisis, yet there is nothing in the McConnell bill for nutrition assistance. 

There is nothing in the bill to help the millions of American’s struggling to pay next month’s rent or keep up with their mortgage payments.  A massive problem, notwithstanding the wishful thinking of the President who either doesn’t know or doesn’t care.  Maybe it’s both.  

Today there are over 25 million Americans on unemployment, compared to just 2 million at the end of January, and the unemployment assistance in this bill is wholly inadequate.     

There is nothing in the bill for state and local governments who are on the frontline fighting this virus.  It contains inadequate money for testing, education, and childcare.  It provides no funding for community health centers, which desperately need it if they are to continue their critical work in our most vulnerable communities.  And there is no funding to fight this virus on a global level.  We cannot defeat this pandemic if we ignore what is happening outside of the United States.   Americans cannot safely resume normal international travel and commerce without a successful global effort to dramatically reduce the rates of infection overseas.

I could go on, but this bill is not a serious one. 

Adding insult to injury, it provides sweeping liability shields for corporate wrongdoers who fail to do their part to keep consumers, employees, and patients safe. That tells you everything you need to know about the priorities of this Republican sponsors: big corporations come ahead of struggling American families.   

Senator McConnell knows this bill cannot pass the Senate.  We’ve already voted on it once and it failed.  So why are we wasting our time doing it again?  It is because they do not have a plan.  Senator McConnell has been clear that his Republican caucus is done with this virus.  While cases are once again surging across the country, Senate Republicans have simply moved on.  Their wait-and-see approach has simply become “wait-and-don’t-look.”  

The Republicans are not serious about solving this problem for the American people.  But we have no choice.  The House passed the HEROES Act, a comprehensive bill over five months ago, and in an effort to prod the Senate into action, passed the HEROES II Act three weeks ago.  We are elected to lead, and that is what we must do in times of national crises like this.

I remain hopeful that Speaker Pelosi and Secretary Mnuchin’s talks will result in a comprehensive deal on COVID relief that will solve real problems in America.  Speaker Pelosi has already shown a willingness to compromise, and the other side must do the same.  If it does, Senator McConnell must commit to bring it to the floor for a vote immediately, even if he personally opposes it, or the majority of his caucus opposes it.  That’s the way democracies are supposed to work.  The American people have waited long enough.