Portman: Senate Should Not Adjourn Without Another COVID-19 Relief Package
WASHINGTON, DC – This evening on the Senate floor, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) gave his 19th floor speech calling on the Senate to act on another COVID-19 relief bill before the end of the year. Earlier today, a bipartisan group of senators unveiled a bipartisan proposal which Portman believes is a good starting point for negotiations. Portman made it clear that the Senate must act now to avoid further economic suffering by providing another relief package to serve as a bridge to when vaccines will be readily available in the spring enabling a return to normal life. A number of important programs designed to help Americans navigate the health care and economic crises caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic are set to expire at the end of 2020, including the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) benefit, the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC), a moratorium on evictions for renters, and deferrals on student loan payments. The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) has already expired, hurting many small businesses in Ohio and around the country.
Failure to extend these programs into 2021 could cause significant economic hardship for thousands of people at a time when COVID-19 cases are surging and putting the country in jeopardy of further economic suffering. That is why Portman believes the Senate should not adjourn until such legislation is passed.
A transcript of his remarks can be found below and a video can be found here.
“I’m here on the floor today to once again talk about the need for this Senate and this Congress to pass legislation to deal with the COVID-19 crisis. I think we have to do this now before the end of the year, certainly before we leave the Congress to go back home for the holiday recess. We just got back from a week-long recess for Thanksgiving, and all the members of this body, all of them, had to have seen what I saw, which is an up-close look at the crisis that’s upon us. In Ohio, our daily new cases are four times what they were just one month ago. Four times. I see the numbers every single day, and they are discouraging. And it’s not just new cases. It’s more people hospitalized. It’s more people in the ICU units. It’s more people, tragically, who are counted among the fatalities.
“This morning, I tried to call a friend of mine who is in the hospital in Columbus, Ohio. He is there because of COVID. I’m just thinking, probably of the people watching tonight, most have either had COVID themselves or have a friend or a family member who have had COVID. This friend was unable to talk to me because he had taken a turn for the worse. His organs were starting to malfunction. He had slipped into unconsciousness. I was able to speak to his wife. I told her, of course, that he’s in our prayers, but I also told her that he’s in my thoughts as we look at whether we should do something more here at the federal level to help on the coronavirus pandemic. Of course we should. It’s been a long time since we took action. You have really got to go back several months.
“The last big package was passed in March, about nine months ago. It’s time for us to act again. And there is some good news out there. With all of the negative news about the cases and hospitalizations, ICUs, and tragically, the fatalities increasing, the good news is that there is hope on the horizon, and that is the vaccines. I have been a big supporter of providing the federal funding for the vaccines, and I applaud the administration for the work they have done on this Operation Warp Speed because I believe that while masks are critical -- and I wear mine, and I hope you’re wearing yours – the social distancing is very helpful, the work that people are doing on the therapies is really important, we need more testing, and that’s good to know where we stand, but nothing can take the place of these vaccines. Think about the other diseases we’ve tackled with vaccines. Measles and smallpox and polio. My dad had polio as a kid. It was fairly common. Today we don’t even think about it. These vaccinations, if they work well, can be amazing. And guess what we learned over the past several weeks? We learned that the early results from some of these vaccines, including the early data we have from the Moderna and the Pfizer candidates are incredibly effective. We’re talking over 90 percent efficacy or effectiveness.
“I’m participating in one of the trials. It’s the Janssen-Johnson & Johnson trial. That vaccine shows promise also. I joined the trial, by the way, for a few reasons. One, because I really want to understand better how this system is working. And I had received a briefing from a company that manages trials around the world, and they indicated to me that they were having trouble getting people to sign up. So another reason I entered was I asked them, I said, ‘Well if I sign up, will that help?’ They said, ‘If you’re willing to go public, yes,’ so I did and I am. I also joined the trial because I’m concerned about the numbers I see about people’s concerns about the safety and effectiveness of these vaccines, because I know through Operation Warp Speed that the science is calling the shots, that these scientists, the best in the world, here in America, are working around the clock to get these vaccines out as quickly as possible, and we’ve got to be sure people actually use them, that people are willing to get vaccinated.
“When I joined the trial only a few weeks ago, several weeks ago, maybe four or five weeks ago, this was before the election, Gallup had recently come out with a survey which said that only 50 percent of Americans were willing to be vaccinated. That’s not good. Again, this is a vaccine that is very effective. The flu vaccine probably is about 30 percent effective, and I have friends who say, ‘I’m not going to take the flu vaccine. I took one last year, and I got the flu anyway.’ Well, that’s because it’s about 30 percent effective on average. That’s not true with these vaccines from the early indications. Again, 90 percent, 95 percent, 94 percent effectiveness or efficacy.
“So I urge people to do their own research, to look at what the scientists are saying, look what Dr. Fauci is saying, look what those who are the professionals are saying. They are saying that corners are not being cut here. In fact, it’s going quickly, but they are being more careful than ever to get this Emergency Use Authorization, which is what the Pfizer and the Moderna vaccine candidates are trying to get right now. They actually have to go through more hoops than normal. So my hope is that this willingness to be vaccinated changes. By the way, there was another Gallup poll two weeks ago, and it didn’t show 50 percent. It showed 58 percent are willing to be vaccinated. That’s good. That’s progress. I think that’s because we are beyond the election, and the irresponsible people who were saying publicly, ‘Gosh, I don’t know if I trust this because it was during the Trump administration’, if they were Democrats, perhaps, have stopped saying it. I hope they have. Because this is not something that’s political. We should never politicize this. This is about saving lives. It’s about getting our economy back on track. It’s about dealing with a virus that has caused so much devastation and dislocation in our families, in our communities, in our businesses.
“So my hope is that everyone will be encouraged to again look at it yourself, do your own research, but get yourself and your families vaccinated because it’s going to help you, protect you, and also protect the community. It’s the only way we are going to get to the kind of community immunity rather than community spread that all of us hope for. Leader McConnell spoke on the floor here yesterday, the Republican leader, the Majority Leader. He said that we need a new COVID-19 bill to continue investing in the distribution system for these vaccines so we can get them in circulation as soon as possible. I couldn’t agree with him more. That’s part of why we need another COVID-19 bill, because we actually need more money for insuring that we’re going to have these vaccines broadly available with a distribution system that makes sense, that’s fair, but also gets this out as quickly as possible.
“You know, this Operation Warp Speed did something extraordinary. It’s a public-private partnership. I think it’s very innovative. They said, ‘the government’s going to subsidize your production of these vaccines, and while you are going through the approval process, which takes several months, you can go ahead and start producing what you think is the right vaccine that you’re testing, and then if you get the approval, boom, the vaccine’s ready to go, as compared to getting the approval and then waiting several more months for the vaccine to be produced.’ That means we’re going to probably end up discarding some vaccines that don’t work, that don’t get the approval. That’s okay. Because the benefit is that much sooner we’re going to have a vaccine out there now in record time. Unprecedented. It’s never happened in the history of the world that one has been created so quickly and that we have distributed it so quickly. I expect we’re going to have vaccines circulating in our communities within a few weeks. And I suspect that they will go first to -- as the CDC will determine in their meeting next week to talk about this, as I understand it – but it will probably go first to our health care providers, to the health care workers who are on the front lines. It will probably go first to people who work in nursing homes because so much of that problem in our long-term care facilities comes from people going in and out of the facility, those people should be vaccinated. The residents of those long-term care facilities. And I believe our first responders need help as quickly as possible because we are putting them in impossible situations. And then the most vulnerable among us, those who are immunocompromised or have other health care problems that are pre-existing. Those who are older and out in concentric circles to the point that by March and April, we would hope that everybody would have the opportunity to step up and become vaccinated. That is something all of us want to see, Republican and Democrat alike. A COVID-19 bill passed now would help make that happen. It will also help us to get over the valley.
“The valley to me is between now, where we have this surge in the virus that is not abating. In Ohio, I’m told by the experts, including talking to our public health officials and our governor, we do not believe that we have peaked. I don’t know about your state, but I believe the same thing is probably true. So there is a valley here between now and the March-April time frame. During those four months, we have to have a bridge, in my view. It’s not forever. It’s a bridge between now and March-April when the vaccinations are broadly available, and we can have the kind of community immunity we talked about earlier. That bridge is going to be extremely important to the people I represent and the people that every member on this floor represents. We had some early successes coming together to pass legislation around here. When the coronavirus first hit, we were all together. In fact, the CARES Act that passed in March nine months ago passed unanimously. Not a single negative vote. We got together actually for four or five different bills that were bipartisan, and we were all together. And then something happened. We started to sort of split apart. But when we were together, we did some great things. Was every penny spent exactly right? Probably not, because it was a lot of money, but we saved so many small businesses. And I know of them, because they are all over Ohio, and I talked to them. The PPP program was a great success. Again, did some get it who shouldn’t have? Of course. But overall, it was extremely successful in keeping the doors open in these small businesses that otherwise would have closed and keeping these employees working and connected to work rather than on the unemployment lines. That was very important.
“CARES Act funds also were critical to those who lost their jobs through no fault of their own. You remember we had a lot of shutdowns in the March-April time frame. People were just out of work for the first time in their lives. I have friends who lost their jobs for the first times in their lives and they had to go to unemployment insurance. They had never done that before, but it saved them. They could make their car payments or make their rent or pay their mortgage. There were other important steps that were taken at that time to be sure that we didn’t have a more devastating impact. I’m proud of the way we came together. But again, that was eight or nine months ago. And I have been frustrated that that sense of urgency and that willingness to sort of set aside the partisanship or whatever our specific concerns were, to come together for the good of the country, it seems to have dissipated.
“It particularly seemed to disappear as we got closer and closer to the election. There seemed to be more and more politics finding its way into the discussion. Well, the election’s over. Republicans here in the Senate have offered a responsible, targeted bill focused on funding our health care response, supporting our small businesses, making our schools safe for students to return to class, helping those unemployed through no fault of their own. We have actually twice had a majority of this Senate in the last month and a half stand up and vote for such a bill. A targeted, focused bill on COVID-19 response. 52 senators. Unfortunately, here in the Senate, that wasn’t enough because you need 60, a supermajority, in order to pass it. So although we had 52 out of 100, we didn’t get the 60. Democrats opposed it, but didn’t offer an alternative here in the Senate, didn’t even allow us to get on the bill to be able to debate it to come up with an alternative.
“Instead, they supported the House-passed bill, which is called the HEROES Act. Which not only is a lot more expensive -- the original version was probably $3.5 trillion, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the most expensive legislation ever passed by any body of Congress -- but also it included a number of provisions that had nothing to do with the coronavirus, and that wasn’t something that a lot of us could support. Immigration law changes, tax breaks for wealthier individuals, other provisions unrelated to COVID-19. My hope is that now with the election behind us, the crisis upon us, the year-end looming, the vaccines coming online, now we can provide that bridge on a bipartisan basis. And I’m not just hopeful, I’m encouraged. We’ve made some recent progress towards what I think could be a good COVID-19 relief package.
“This morning a bipartisan framework was put forward by what’s called a Problem Solvers Caucus with four members of the Democrat side and four members from the Republican side. Their proposal, we’ve all had a chance to look at now during the day, and I think it’s the basis for getting something done before the end of the year. I’ve been in discussion with those eight members as recently as this afternoon. I’ve been in discussion over the past several weeks with many colleagues on both sides of the aisle about how do you come together on this? And I think what was proposed today by this Problem Solvers Caucus is a good start. It’s not exactly what I would write. I have some ideas that I think are really good that aren’t in there, and there are some things in there I wouldn’t support. It’s probably not what any individual senator would write. In fact, I’m confident in that. But, again, it’s a good starting point. It has about $300 billion to help bolster the PPP program, to keep it going and to help struggling small businesses. A lot of them are on the edge right now, I can tell you that. $16 billion for the vaccine distribution we talked about, also for more testing and more money for therapies. $180 billion to help Americans who have lost their jobs during this downturn in the economy, in addition to a lot of other important provisions for our schools and for our health care providers. It doesn’t do everything Republicans want. It doesn’t do everything Democrats want, but it does what the American people need. I hope that this starting point will result in us getting the same kind of bipartisan support that we’ve had for previous bills that have been offered here on the Senate floor.
“Again, I’d like to add some things to it that I think make a lot of sense. Specifically, there’s some tax incentives to boost our economic recovery like the Healthy Workplaces Tax Credit to help businesses reopen and stay open with the current safety and social distancing guidelines. I would like to expand and repurpose the Employee Retention Tax Credit and the Work Opportunity Tax Credit from the CARES Act into something that’s more encompassing for companies that don’t qualify for PPP but are willing to retain their employees, again, keep them connected to work, which I think is so important. Again, we need to act soon, because I am concerned about some of the new reports coming out on the economic impact this pandemic is having, especially on certain sectors of the economy and particularly on middle and lower-income Americans.
“After the initial economic shutdown created the record unemployment numbers we saw in the early weeks of this pandemic, unemployment claims began to fall, the Paycheck Protection Program, again, helped small businesses stay open and keep employees on payroll, that was good. As more businesses found ways to open and reopen safely, hiring picked up and as of October, national unemployment was moving in the right direction. Not near where it was pre-pandemic, but still in the right direction. But then we’ve seen more troubling signs as the pandemic health care crisis aspect of the pandemic has increased.
“One problem is that the partial economic recovery we were seeing was not evenly distributed across different sectors of our economy. That’s pretty obvious to people. If you’re a manufacturer in Ohio that closed your factory floor this spring, you were able to figure it out, reconfigure the workplace, perhaps -- allow for social distancing -- and demand started to go back up and most manufacturers are in pretty good shape now. But, boy, if you’re in the hospitality business, the travel business, the personal care business, you’ve been hit really hard. Our restaurants, our bowling alleys, our music venues, our coach companies and many more have had a much tougher path to reopening their doors in a safe way. I had a very sobering call with members of the Ohio Restaurant Association last week. It’s troubling to me that more than half of all Ohio restaurants say it is unlikely that they will be in business six months from now in the absence of more help. So without a new PPP and other help, half of them said they are going to close their doors. I’m in the business, the restaurant business. It’s a tough business. People are hanging on.
“We’ve got to do something to help the economically disadvantaged also. At start of 2020, thanks to consecutive years of strong growth in the pre-COVID economy, under the Trump administration, Republican proposals, tax cuts, tax reform, regulatory relief, allowing our energy resources to be used in this country, things were going pretty darn well. The national poverty rate over the last few years before COVID started in February of this year, the national poverty rate had fallen to the lowest rate since the government started tracking the statistic 60 years ago. Let me repeat that. The poverty rate had fallen to its lowest level since it was recorded, 10.5 percent. The economy was good, not just low unemployment, but also higher wages. We actually had in February the 19th straight month of wage increases of three percent or more, that was compounding. People were seeing ‘Well gosh, if I work hard and play by the rules, I can get ahead.’ Things were good, particularly because that wage increase was focused on lower and moderate-income Americans. But that has all changed since we hit COVID.
“The early economic stimulus actually helped drive that poverty rate lower that I talked about, the March-April time frame. Since then, a lack of federal action and this sluggish economic recovery we’ve seen has reversed that progress with nearly seven million Americans falling into poverty since May. That means the poverty rate has now risen two percentage points to 11.4 percent. That represents again, seven million more Americans who have fallen into poverty. People say, what has the coronavirus done to the economy? There it is. Among other things it’s driven the poverty rate back up after we had so much success. What’s worse, the longer those individuals stay in poverty, the harder it is for them to get out of poverty. And that’s one of my concerns. Long-term unemployed. Long-term problems with regard to the poverty rate.
A big part of the problem is that those who are most vulnerable to sliding into poverty, these low-income Americans we’re concerned about, have been the hardest hit by the waves of layoffs that started in the spring, and nearly half of all lower-income adults report that either they or someone in their household lost a job or took a pay-cut as a result of the economic slowdown. Half. In comparison only about one-third of higher-income Americans report being affected in this way. Maybe that’s obvious to you, but a woman who works in the kitchen for that restaurant who has lost her job, maybe making $15-$16 an hour compared to maybe somebody who works in factory making $25-$30 an hour, those restaurant workers have been more affected. And that’s been played out through so many different industries around the economy where lower-income individuals often who cannot work mobile, they can’t virtually work unlike someone, say, in the financial services industry. They have been some of the hardest hit. Another economic slowdown caused by our failure to act here in Congress would only exacerbate those real hardships fought by those who can least afford it.
“Do we have a magic wand here? No. We’re not going to solve all the problems, but we can help. With so many challenges to contend with, it is concerning to me that the Senate will only be in session for 11 more days before we adjourn for the holidays. We have to act and we have a very short window to do so. By the way, we should not leave Washington without acting. We should not leave Washington for the holidays without passing a COVID-19 response bill. If we do, we’ll be risking even more devastation from the virus and even more economic impacts where millions of Americans could lose their jobs, their homes, their cars, and more. We can help avoid this if we provide the necessary resources to continue to combat the ongoing pandemic as well as addressing a lot of the important provisions created under the CARES Act, way back nine months ago, that were set to expire at the end of this year.
“Of these provisions one of the most concerning to me is the cliff we face in regard to unemployment benefits for those who have lost their jobs due to COVID-19. Both the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program and the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation Program will expire at the end of this month. These are supplementary federal programs designed to help the self-employed, gig-economy workers, and those who need extra support while on unemployment during the pandemic. Again, I know some of these people. I’ve talked to them. They are nervous, they are looking at this year-end and thinking, ‘My gosh, I’m on unemployment now, even though I’m self-employed, and I wouldn’t have been on it under the state system and now the feds are going to pull out and I’m left with nothing.’ Even with the economic rebound we’ve had since the spring, we are still down 10 million jobs in this country since February. Think about that. Again, the economy was going great, the policies we put in place were working but we’re still down 10 million jobs. A further slowdown of the economy is going to be tough for those long-term unemployed, and my concern is some of them may never reenter the workforce, so we need to act and act quickly to get them back in the mix. With the latest round of stricter social distancing measures and closures in some states in order to counter the spread of the virus, more jobs will vanish. We’re seeing that already. Look at the states that are doing shutdowns. Higher unemployment, more people without a job. Losing that unemployment insurance lifeline will be devastating for lots of those Americans. Let’s not let that happen.
“The end of 2020 also means the end of other important COVID-19 response programs. Many individuals who have had their incomes affected by this pandemic are also renters and the current national moratorium on evictions has allowed these people to keep a roof over their head while they look for work and try to hold their lives together, but this moratorium expires at the end of the year, so you’ll see a lot more people losing their apartment or losing their home, and ending up without any place to go. We need to act here if Congress is to make sure that doesn’t happen. The same goes for the millions of individuals who are currently relying on student loan deferrals to free up money to cover expenses during the pandemic. Come the start of next year, the student loan payments will be due if we don’t act. And again, a lot of people have relied on this. It’s not that they won’t have to pay, but it has been deferred. That ends at year-end. My hope is that laying out everything we stand to lose in just a few weeks at year-end will encourage Congress to act on targeted coronavirus legislation to serve as that bridge -- just as a temporary bridge -- between now and when we have widespread vaccine availability next spring. Failure to act could mean further economic suffering that puts millions more Americans in a tough spot. In the face of a virus that seems to be getting more and more out of hand every day, it just seems like common sense to me that we should act and expand and extend these important programs.
“Again, I agree with Leader McConnell who spoke on the floor here yesterday talking about the importance of providing support for, as an example, our hardest-hit small businesses by having a second round of Paycheck Protection Program targeted at those companies that are actually losing money, year-to-year showing this month as compared to a year ago or this quarter as compared to a year ago, that they are seeing a significant drop in their revenue. These are the ones who need the help the most. In addition we should consider other important provisions, again to provide funding to keep our kids safe in school -- we want them in school, it’s a good thing for them, but we’ve got to be sure they can be safe -- facilitate vaccine distribution, support our health care providers, and funding and flexibility for state and local governments that truly need it. They have to show the need.
“American lives are at stake and we’re in danger of losing whatever ground we gained on the coronavirus as this third wave threatens my home state of Ohio and the states of so many of my colleagues in this chamber. Let’s not wait any longer. Let’s come together and get something done that’s good for the American people before the end of the year and let’s stay here. I’m committed to staying here. Let’s stay here until we do that.”