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After months of stalemate on further help for American workers and businesses and on the cusp of much pandemic aid expiring, a multipartisan group of U.S. senators and House members, including Maine’s Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, unveiled a relief package on Tuesday.
The package, with a price tag of about $900 billion, is an important and needed middle ground that offers a way to quickly get more temporary assistance to workers, businesses owners and state and local governments as the coronavirus pandemic worsens across the country.
It must be given serious consideration.
As Virginia Democratic Sen. Mark Warner said: “It would be stupidity on steroids if Congress left for Christmas without doing an interim package.”
Members of the group, which worked on the plan through the Thanksgiving holiday recess, were clear in a press conference Tuesday that their bill was not perfect and that many of their colleagues would find it either too stingy or too costly.
But they were also clear that action now is essential to help Americans weather the dark days of winter as businesses continue to close, people continue to lose jobs, lines grow at food pantries and our health care system is strained as the number of coronavirus cases has risen sharply in recent weeks.
“We worked night and day throughout the Thanksgiving recess because we recognize that families all across America are struggling, that businesses are closing, that hospitals are overwhelmed,” Collins said at the press conference led by West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat. “As we deal with this second, or third wave, of this pandemic, it is absolutely essential that we pass emergency relief.”
The lawmakers are right that a relief bill is essential. They are also right that this bill is not perfect. We, for example, would like to see more money for unemployment benefits as $300 a week is not sufficient to sustain a family or to act as an economic stimulus.
It is much smaller than the $2 trillion package passed by the House in October (and tinier yet than the $3 trillion HEROES Act passed by the House in May) and a $1.8 trillion plan supported by President Donald Trump. But it is also nearly twice the $500 billion proposal backed by Senate Republicans.
Sen. Mitt Romney, also a member of the group that put together the $908 billion plan, sought to defuse criticism that the bill was too costly.
“I happen to be a deficit hawk,” the Utah Republican said Tuesday. “I don’t like borrowing money. I don’t like spending money we don’t have. But the time to borrow money — maybe the only time to borrow money — is when there’s a crisis. And this is a crisis.”
By focusing on the size of the bill — rather than its impact — lawmakers, particularly those in leadership, have lost half the importance of a relief or stimulus bill. The aim of any such legislation should be to help American people and businesses first and to pump needed money into the U.S. economy second. A bill that is too small could fail on both measures.
The plan unveiled Tuesday includes many essential elements — money for unemployment benefits ($180 billion), funding for state, local and tribal governments ($160 billion, additional funding for the Paycheck Protection Program $288 billion), food and agriculture assistance ($26 billion) and rental relief ($25 billion). It also includes $45 million for the transportation sector (airlines, buses, Amtrak), $4 billion for student loan relief and $35 billion for health provider relief, among other funding provisions. It does not include another round of stimulus checks but it does contain some liability protection for businesses, schools and other entities from lawsuits related to coronavirus.
Its backers are also right to frame it as a partial, temporary solution, acknowledging that more help could again be needed next year if the pandemic remains out of control. Their proposal is meant to help Americans get through the first quarter of next year.
The question for lawmakers as they consider this proposal (and not Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s weakened version of it) is whether there is enough money dedicated to the right priorities to truly help the American people and businesses make it through another round of economic restrictions that may be needed to slow the spread of the virus.
“This plan isn’t perfect … but if we pass this bill before the year’s end, we’ll extend a lifeline to millions of Americans in need just as cases are spiking, CARES Act protections are expiring, and winter is arriving,” King said in a statement. “The American people need us to work together to save lives and livelihoods – so let’s get it done.”
This group has done much of the hard work and put together a thoughtful and comprehensive plan. It isn’t perfect, but it offers the temporary help that American families and businesses badly need.