Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy On The Urgent Need For A Bold Response To The Coronavirus Pandemic

For more than a year, our country has been in the grip of an unprecedented health and economic catastrophe.  It was January of last year when the first confirmed case of COVID-19 arrived in our country.  Since then, more than 444,000 of our fellow citizens have died, more than 26 million have been infected, and millions have lost their jobs. 

And every day there are thousands more deaths.

A year ago, former President Trump boasted that there were only 15 COVID-19 cases in this country and he was confident that the number would soon be zero.  For months he told the American people there was nothing to worry about. 

It was obvious to anyone paying attention to the country’s public health experts that he had no idea what he was talking about.  But of course, he wasn’t interested in what anyone else had to say.  There have been so many unforgiveable mistakes, so many missed opportunities, in dealing with this virus that we and the world are now facing a calamity unlike anything in modern history. 

The previous administration, rather than unite the country against the virus, chastised people for wearing masks.  They vilified governors who tried to stop the spread of the virus.  Former President Trump said it would disappear, “like magic.” Over the summer we lost even more time, with their inexplicable decision to take a “pause” and delay further COVID relief.  That was precious time that could have been spent trying to get the pandemic under control.  Time was wasted while the virus spread and mutated, and now we are dealing with multiple variants, some of which are more easily transmissible and possibly more deadly. 

The previous administration’s handling of this disease was a monumental, unforgiveable failure of leadership.   Tens of thousands of Americans would be alive today if they had done their job, or at least not made it impossible for those who tried to.  Historians will judge them harshly.  That was then.  Our job now is to rally behind a President who understands the seriousness and urgency of what we are facing. 

The $1.9 trillion package proposed by President Biden is the kind of bold, comprehensive proposal we have needed since last spring.  The President’s plan would provide the resources to mount a national vaccination program, safely open our schools, restore American global leadership, and provide direct support to people in need. 

We cannot reopen our economy if we do not defeat this virus, and President Biden understands this.  And he also understands that as long as the virus is spreading anywhere, it threatens people everywhere.  That is why we need a global response. 

As the incoming Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, I am committed to supporting the President’s proposal expeditiously.  The American people have endured enough despair, sickness, and death due to the incompetence of the previous administration. 

I also share President Biden’s desire to make this a bipartisan process.  But the price of bipartisanship cannot be a package that falls far short of meeting the needs of the American people.  There were painful consequences for delaying another broad relief package between April and December of last year, and there are reasons why states today don’t have the quantity of vaccines they need, why our schools remain closed, why millions are out of work, and why the virus is spreading out of control.  Valuable time was squandered, and countless people suffered and died as a result.

I also cannot accept a piecemeal approach or months of further delay.  The clock is ticking, and in mid-March key benefits that millions of Americans are relying on to survive will begin to lapse.  We cannot allow a self-inflicted wound to make their lives even worse. 

While I am glad to see several Republicans are putting forward their own plan, the plan shortchanges America’s needs in critical ways:

It provides little of the resources needed to reopen schools. 

It doesn’t include money for state and local governments that are on the front lines fighting this virus, but have been forced to lay off more than 1 million people since March. 

It cuts direct payments to struggling families from $1400 to $1000. 

And their proposal completely ignores what every public health expert knows:  if we don’t help the lower income countries protect their people, we cannot defeat the virus.  This is a global pandemic, and as long as it is spreading in Central America, and Africa, and Asia, the virus – and more deadly variants – will find their way here. 

So, while I am hopeful that there may be a bipartisan path forward, I am not for conceding any tools at our disposal that can deliver the relief the American people need and is long overdue. 

I support the Budget Resolution that has been introduced, which would put us on a path to passing a COVID relief package through the budget reconciliation process.  And there is no reason a reconciliation bill can’t be bipartisan.  We have passed at least 17 bipartisan reconciliation bills since 1980 on behalf of the American people.  I welcome any Republican who would like to discuss where we can reach a compromise. 

But we are in the midst of a public health emergency, and right now the virus is winning.  We cannot waste months negotiating a plan that fails to mount an effective response to the virus or to fully respond to the economic havoc it is causing. 

We need quick action on a bold and comprehensive plan to fight the virus and get people back to work so our economy can recover.  That is what President Biden proposed.  There is greater danger in doing too little than in doing too much.  As Secretary Yellen recently stated, “the smartest thing we can do is act big.”

It has been more than a year since this disease arrived in our country.  It was never going to just “disappear.”  Viruses never do that.  There is no excuse for dragging our feet.  We should all support the bold package proposed by President Biden for the American people. 

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