Vice Chairman Leahy On The Republican COVID-19 Proposal And The Cost Of Continued Inaction

It was 75 days ago today, the Democratic-led House passed the HEROES Act -- a comprehensive and bold bill to address the very real needs facing this country as we struggle to contain the coronavirus.  For 75 days, Democrats have pressed Republican leadership to take up the HEROES Act in the Senate, and for 75 days we have been told no. 

For 75 days we watched the virus spread and the death toll rise as President Trump stood by denying the severity of the crisis, attacking the science, and assuring the American public the virus would just go away on its own.  And for 75 days we watched as critical deadlines bore down on us for programs that offered a lifeline to the American people, including the expiration of Federal unemployment benefits and a moratorium on evictions.

On Monday, after 73 days of waiting, Senate Republicans finally unveiled their proposals to address the coronavirus pandemic and they are disjointed and in disarray.  What have they been doing all this time?  Instead of one bill, it is a collection of eight different pieces of legislation, introduced by eight different members.  Instead of a cohesive package to address the needs of the American people and get this virus under control, their proposals prioritize corporations over people and put business interests ahead of the science.  It is unclear if the White House has blessed this package, and it is even less clear if it would get the support of even a majority of Republicans.  What is clear is that its priorities are completely misplaced.

The Republican Party seems to think they can fix our nation’s problems by simply forcing a reopening of the economy, forcing people back to the workplace, and sending our children back to school, as if the virus isn’t still spreading like wildfire.  Their approach will not work and even worse, it will make us less safe. 

We all want to get the economy back on track.  We all want schools to reopen and we all want to return to the workplace.  But the only way to accomplish this is to contain the virus and slow the spread.  That is the only thing that will give people the confidence to emerge from their homes and reengage in society and our economy. 

To accomplish that we need quick and efficient testing and contact tracing.  We need a vaccine and a way to mass produce and get that vaccine once we have it to the people.  We need to support unemployed Americans until we get through this crisis.  We need to keep people from being evicted and losing their homes.  We need to create safe working environments and safe learning environments for our children.  And where children must learn from home – with parents working from home – we need to make investments in the infrastructure they need to be successful.  The Republican bill fails on all of these fronts.  

It provides insufficient funding for testing and contact tracing, as well as insufficient funding for a mass vaccine campaign.  It underfunds education programs, and uses the money as a stick to force school districts to open even if the locality and public health agencies decide it is not safe.  It fails to provide much needed investments in broadband and internet access for rural areas to allow for distance learning where it is needed.

It provides no increase for SNAP benefits even though more people are going hungry every day in America, and there is no new funding for state and local governments who are laying off teachers, healthcare workers, and first responders as their revenues dry up.  

The Republican proposal inexplicably cuts federal unemployment benefits to millions of workers.  Republicans insist this is to “incentivize” people to go back to work.  But work where?  People want to work but jobs are hard to come by.  All this does is make people more destitute, and put more people at risk of not being able to put food on the table or pay their rent.  It certainly doesn’t get our economy back on track. 

To show why this Republican proposal is a non-starter, I want to share a few stories from Vermonters who have written or called into my office.

One man wrote to me because he is concerned he will be evicted from his home in the next few days.  He has been out of work since March and only able to survive because of the federal unemployment benefits in the CARES Act, which this bill callously strips away.  His wife is taking classes at the local community college in hopes of one day getting a better job.  But, in just a few short days, they could face eviction because they cannot afford to make their $750 rent payment.  Instead of inching ever closer to achieving the American dream, that dream is being snatched away due to no fault of their own and homelessness is now a real possibility for them. 

He writes:  “I hope that you and your fellow Senators can find a solution as soon as possible, because we are all affected by what happens in the Capitol.”

He is right.  What happens in this chamber affects him and his family.  And what solutions are Republicans proposing?  Unemployment benefits slashed, and no rental assistance?  The expiration of the eviction moratorium we included in the CARES Act?  When was the last time anyone in this room struggled to make rent?  Who are we to tell this man he does not deserve continued help from his government in the middle of a pandemic? 

Another Vermonter wrote to me terrified over the fate of her 98-year-old mother.  Since March, her mother and the other residents of her nursing home have been confined to their rooms, unable to join each other for dinner and unable to participate in activities.  The nursing home staff lack the necessary personal protective equipment and testing capability to prevent the disease from spreading.  She has not been able to hug her own mother since this pandemic started.

She writes:  “We can’t just have a single-state or single-country response to this pandemic.  We must all work together to take action now to support the most vulnerable members of our society.” 

I couldn’t agree more.  We need to work together to protect the most vulnerable among us and we need to prioritize the most urgent of needs.  The Republican proposal does not do that.   

Across our country children are going hungry because their parents are out of work and the cost of food is on the rise, but the Republicans include nothing for SNAP and nothing for child nutrition.  Yet, there are billion dollar giveaways to the defense industry.  Republicans want five years of immunity for large corporations so they won’t be sued if they put their workers at risk.  At the same time, they include no money for worker protection.  There is $1.7 billion for an FBI building that would eliminate potential competition with Trump’s hotel across the street, but no money to ensure people can safely vote in our upcoming elections.  How does this make sense?     

In absence of a President who takes this virus seriously or is able to lead this country through this crisis, the American people need Congress to step up.  The Republican proposal fails to do this.  It leaves people behind and our country and economy even more vulnerable. 

We must stop playing partisan games and offering solutions only one party can get behind.  We must begin bipartisan, bicameral negotiations on a bill that can be sent to the President by the end of next week.  We must prioritize those programs that help us contain this virus, that help us protect vulnerable families, and that will put us on the right track to reopening our economy.   

The American people cannot wait any longer.  The Vermonters who call and write into my office pleading for help cannot wait any longer.  To do nothing is an abdication of our sworn responsibility to serve our constituents.  But to advance this patchwork series of bills offered by the Republican Majority is worse – it’s a disservice to the thousands of Americans who have died, the millions of Americans who have contracted this virus, and the hundreds of millions of Americans who are looking to their government to do something.

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