On Senate Floor, Portman Stresses Dire Need for Bipartisan Action to Address Surging COVID-19 Pandemic
WASHINGTON, DC – Today on the Senate floor, for the 18th time since March, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) spoke on the urgency for Congress to act to pass bipartisan legislation to respond to the health care and economic crises caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In Ohio and across the country, new coronavirus are increasing, with Ohio surpassing 6,500 and the United States surpassing 100,000 new cases in a day for the first time earlier this month.
Senator Portman called on Congress to provide the relief Americans need and deserve. In particular, he believes funding for testing and contact tracing, funding for vaccine and therapy developments, and his Healthy Workplaces Tax Credit, which helps businesses reopen and stay open, are all common-sense proposals with bipartisan support upon which a new COVID-19 response package should be built. He urged his colleagues to put aside the partisanship that has stymied previous efforts to pass COVID-19 relief legislation and focus on solutions that help the American people.
A transcript of his remarks can be found below and a video can be found here.
“I have come to the floor again today to talk about the need for us, as a Congress, to come together to address this coronavirus pandemic. We have an unprecedented health care and economic crisis right now, and it’s important for us to figure out what we can do, what we can agree on, and then move forward. Since this pandemic began back in March, I am told I have come to the floor now 17 separate times to urge my colleagues to work together on a bipartisan basis to try to put together legislation that will enable us to respond effectively and in a focused way to the COVID-19 crisis. We had some early successes -- remember the CARES Act that was passed back in March. That was eight months ago. Eight months ago. Really, for the last six months, we haven’t passed anything that addresses this crisis, and yet the crisis has ebbed and flowed, and right now, unfortunately, it’s at an all-time high in my state of Ohio. I have been frustrated that we can’t have that same sense of urgency and willingness to work together as we had during those first several months of the coronavirus pandemic. It seemed to have disappeared as we entered election season, didn’t it ?So as we got closer and closer to the election, there was more and more divide and inability to come together.
“Now we need to get back to that sense of bipartisanship -- I would even say nonpartisanship on so much of this -- and cooperation for the good of our country. It’s getting worse, as I said, in my state of Ohio and around the country, and I believe we can make a difference, and that’s important. There are things we can do at the federal level that would help. Right now, we’re averaging in this country over 100,000 new cases per day. That’s double the rate from just one month ago – double the rate from one month ago. It was predicted as it got colder and people were inside more. The third wave has arrived. In Ohio, the number of daily new cases has risen every day for the past month. Just last night, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine reported nearly 6,000 new cases in the last 24-hour period, compared to 1,000 cases per day the state was experiencing just at the beginning of October. Unfortunately, it’s not just about new cases. We’re seeing increases in hospitalizations. We’re seeing increases in patients that are in the ICU. We’re seeing increases, sadly, in fatalities.
“We need to do more to help this economy, too, because the economy, as the pandemic has worsened, has begun to slow. Initially, we had impressive economic growth, no question about it, but it’s begun to slow at a time when the economy is still down 10 million jobs since February. Think about that. We’re still 10 million jobs short from where we were in February. What we really don’t want is for those 10 million people to become long-term unemployed who may never reenter the workforce. That’s why it’s important to act, and act now. Unemployment claims which were going down, by the way, seems to have more or less flattened in most states, including Ohio.
“Ohio’s unemployment rate, we’re told, for the most recent month we have data for, which is September, was still above eight percent. I think it’s better now, but it’s still way too high. And of course, certain sectors of the economy, like hospitality, travel, and entertainment, are really struggling badly, with no end in sight as some states begin to re-implement these stricter social distancing measures, and some states are even putting back in place closures. So if you’re in the hospitality business, the entertainment business, the travel business, you are concerned right now. To counter the spread of the virus, these closures are also going to have a terrible economic impact on businesses and on families.
“These dangerous trends are putting people’s lives and livelihoods at risk if we can’t start to reverse them, and again, it’s been six months since we came together on any kind of a package, eight months since the CARES package. I believe there are some in Congress including, I believe, the Speaker of the House, who were not interested in seeing a comprehensive package passed before the election. They thought it would be good politics, I guess, for President Trump. I don’t know. If you look at the results of the election, I think it might have been just the opposite. But the point is, the election is now behind us, so if that was the reason, let’s forget that. Let’s get something done here. Let’s get this partisan gridlock off the docket on this issue, and let’s focus on what’s good for the American people. This is what’s called the lame-duck session of Congress, so that’s a good time to do it. We’re past the election and yet the new Congress hasn’t come on yet. Let’s work together in good faith toward a federal response that’s, again, focused and targeted. We can find some common ground here.
“I believe the best path forward is very close to what has been embodied in some of these more targeted proposals, including ones that we have put on the floor repeatedly here since way back in August. These bills are inclusive of some of the most important bipartisan priorities, like providing needed funding for vaccine and therapy development, like replenishing the successful PPP program for small businesses -- it was included in the CARES Act, by the way, but it was expired back in August. So on August 9, the Paycheck Protection Program, PPP, actually expired. So for these struggling small businesses, they have got nowhere to turn. How about providing funding to the schools? That’s bipartisan. How about being sure that we have folks who are able to come together to help ensure that we have adequate funding for this exciting new vaccine development we’re hearing about?
“Anyway, when we tried to bring these to the floor, the other side has blocked even entering into a debate about it. Instead, Democrats have insisted on the House-passed HEROES Act, which passed in May with almost no Republican support, which makes a bunch of controversial changes to policies unrelated to coronavirus -- repealing the state and local tax deduction to benefit mostly wealthy Americans, making unprecedented changes to immigration law. What do these policies have to do with coronavirus? Nothing. At a time of unprecedented deficits and debt, it makes those changes with a price tag of $3.5 trillion. Now, some say ‘well, the Speaker is now down to $2.4 trillion.’ Folks, whatever that number is, that’s going to be unprecedented. We have never had anything that expensive pass the Congress. And it’s at a time again where we have the highest deficit we have ever had and our debt as a percent of our GDP sadly is now 100 percent of our GDP, which it hasn’t been since World War II.
“We are past the contentious election season now, so let’s put aside the politics and let’s build a targeted bipartisan coronavirus bill based on what we all agree works and what we agree really is needed in the face of a rapidly spreading virus. Here are a few examples of what we could do. First, our next coronavirus response package should have a Healthy Workplaces Tax Credit in it, which basically says, ‘we all want people back to work, back to school, back in the hospitals, well let’s do it safely.’ This would really help the bars, restaurants, salons, the gyms, bowling alleys, and other businesses to be able to reopen safely and stay open by basically compensating them for the purchase of hand sanitizers, and PPE like face shields and gloves, for the reconfiguration of their work places with Plexiglas, as you’ve seen, and for other measures to allow for social distancing. As businesses prepare to winterize their outdoor spaces in order to prevent the spread of COVID, this payroll tax credit that’s in this legislation would help offset those costs and help businesses stay open. Just what we need to help keep our economy afloat. This is I think the sweet spot. I think everyone agrees, I hope, that we should go back to work, go back to school, go back to the hospitals and so on, but we need to do it safely. Well that’s what this does. Shouldn’t that be bipartisan, even nonpartisan?
“Second, we should invest heavily in testing and contact tracing so that states are better equipped to respond to this surge of outbreaks. Republicans and Democrats alike know that fast and accurate tests are critical to stopping the spread of this disease and getting people more comfortable going back to shopping, going back to work, going back to school, going back to a more normal life. The targeted bill, again, that we introduced last month that Democrats blocked, had $16 billion set aside for testing and tracing. We could use those resources right now in Ohio. I spoke to Governor DeWine earlier this week, we want the money for testing. We need it. Let’s pass it now.
“Third, we also need help to continue the development of these treatments and these vaccines as quickly as possible. The recent news of a potential vaccine by Pfizer with a 90 percent efficacy is really promising, but we can’t take our foot off the gas on this. If we cannot address the underlying health care challenge of the coronavirus, we’re going to be stuck playing defense against this disease for a long time. The targeted bill from last month included $37 billion for vaccine development and distribution and $20 billion for therapies, which I think are really good starting points for us to at least debate what the final number should be, but let’s help right now to ensure that we don’t slow down the vaccines and therapies and be sure the distribution works.
“In the face of a virus that seems like it’s getting more and more out of hand every day, these three proposals are examples -- a tax credit to safely reopen businesses, money for improved testing and tracing, money for vaccine and therapy development -- these all seem like commonsense ideas. I don’t see a reason why a majority in this chamber can’t come together and build a bipartisan response based on these kinds of simple policies.
“Whatever we do, we can’t afford to delay any longer. American lives are at stake, and we are in danger of losing ground where we gained it on the coronavirus as this third wave threatens my home state of Ohio and our country. Let’s not wait any longer. Let’s come together and once again get something done that helps the people we represent.”