On Senate Floor, Portman Stresses Need for Swift Bipartisan Action to Respond to COVID-19 Crisis

Portman Floor Speech Followed Vote by Senate Democrats to Block Targeted COVID Response Legislation

September 10, 2020 | Press Releases

WASHINGTON, DC – Today on the Senate floor, after Senate Democrats voted to block targeted COVID response legislation, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) highlighted the need for Republicans and Democrats to work together and focus on the areas of agreement between the two parties: increased testing, additional funding for schools and universities, and restarting the Payment Protection Program, which has saved countless small businesses.

Portman urged Senate Democrats insisting on passing the partisan, $3.5 trillion HEROES Act to instead work together and negotiate in good faith with Republicans to finalize additional coronavirus response so that Americans do not continue to go without relief. He believes the shared policy goals in the targeted bill can serve as a good starting point for bipartisan negotiation and he will advocate for his additional priorities of more flexibility and additional for state and local funding, permanently access to telehealth, and funding for rural broadband development as so many telework, use telehealth, and attend school virtually. 

A transcript of his remarks can be found below and a video can be found here.

“I’m on the floor today to talk about the coronavirus pandemic and what we can and should do here in the United States Senate and in Congress as a whole to actually address the ongoing problem. We’re not out of the woods yet. We’ve still got a health care crisis and, of course, an economic crisis that’s a consequence of that. We’ve done some good bipartisan work over the past six months. In fact, I think not many people realize that we’ve actually passed five or six bills with strong bipartisan majorities. The one people know about most is the biggest one, the CARES Act. I think it got 97 votes here on the floor of the Senate. 97-0. So we’ve, in the past, been able to figure out a way to come together as Republicans and Democrats -- as Americans -- to be able to address this crisis. We need to do it again, because we still do have a crisis. We still do have unacceptably high levels of people getting infected, hospitalized, being in the ICU, fatalities, and of course our economy is not where any of us would like to see it, although it has improved significantly, in part because of the legislation we have passed here. I’m convinced we would be at over 10 percent unemployment still if not for the legislation we passed here. Instead we’re beginning to come down, 8.4 percent last month. That’s faster than anybody thought it could. Still, of course, unacceptably high. So more help is needed, and we can’t let the upcoming election and the politics around that keep us from getting together and continuing to do the work that we have to do.

“Now we haven’t been able in the last five or six weeks to do that. Instead we’ve been working kind of on opposite sides of the aisle on our own projects. Today, we voted on a bill that got a majority of the United States Senators supporting it. That’s not how you pass something around here. You have to have a supermajority of 60 votes, but a majority of Senators in this chamber just voted for legislation that has strong bipartisan appeal, I would think, because as we’ll talk about in a second, almost every element is supported by the Democrats, the Republicans, and most importantly by the American people. But what we’ve done is we’ve kind of fallen into camps. The Democrats passed a bill in the House. It’s called the HEROES Act. It’s a $3.5 trillion bill. And remember, we’ve already spent about $3.5 trillion making this the largest deficit in the history of our country and making our debt now, for the first time since World War II, the size of our entire economy. That concerns all of us, and it should. I hope it concerns all of us because our fiscal situation going forward for our kids and grandkids is something we should be concerned about too. Anyway, $3.5 trillion bill, and, you know, it’s kind of a grab bag to be honest. Some of it is related to COVID-19 but some of it is not.

“As an example there is a provision in there that I hope will be a nonstarter that changes our tax laws and repeals what’s called the state and local tax deduction cap that was put in just recently. This gives a huge break to wealthy Americans. In fact, 40 percent of this benefit, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation, goes to the top one percent of wage earners.  Now what does that have to do with the coronavirus? It will help millionaires on both coasts a lot, but it really does not affect the crisis that we’re in. They also want to use this $3.5 trillion package as a way to make changes in our immigration policy. Now that’s pretty controversial stuff as it stands and that’s going to make, of course, that bill hard to pass because immigration policy people have strong views on but it has no place in a COVID-19 bill. One that also concerns those of us who are concerned about the election coming up is it puts federal mandates in place on the states that are unprecedented with regard to their election system. Now that’s something we’ve always left to the province of the states. But instead it puts mandates in place on the electoral system. That’s not, again, something that is going to help us in terms of the coronavirus.

“So my hope is that those House Democrats who passed that bill can now see what we passed over here that is a very targeted bill that focuses on the coronavirus. It is less than $500 billion, which used to be a lot of money around here, but is compared to the $3.5 trillion, so it’s obviously a lot less money but it’s also more targeted, more focused. And again, I think so much of it is policy that can be supported on both sides of the aisle, and it will really help to continue the efforts we’ve started here to help address health care crisis, but also help with regard to the weak economic performance that’s a result of people being isolated from the economy.

“I heard someone this week say we’ve got a ‘K’ recovery. What does that mean? Well you think of the letter ‘K’, a lot of people say you want to have a ‘V’ recovery where you go down steeply into a recession and then you come back up just as steeply. That’s where I think a lot of America is. In other words, a lot of families, a lot of businesses have seen pretty rapid recovery here in the past few months but there are others who have not. So the top part of the ‘K’ is true for a lot of people and a lot of businesses. Think of the businesses that provide food, the grocery stores, the businesses that are involved in construction, businesses like Home Depot or Lowes that provide building products, they are doing well, they are at the top of the ‘K’, they’re in the ‘V’. But there are others that are in the bottom, that would include travel and hospitality. It would certainly include the airlines, bus companies, they are having a tough time. Many of our smaller businesses, retail, certainly our bars and movie theaters and bowling alleys, they are having a tough time. They are at the bottom end of that. So this is an uneven recovery, and we have to acknowledge that, and therefore to my colleagues on my side of the aisle who might say, ‘We’ve done enough, the recovery is on, everything’s good.’ Unfortunately that’s not true. I wish it were. I wish we had turned the corner on the economy and also begun to turn the corner on the virus. We can’t say that yet.

“We’ve made progress, no question about it. I think we’re on the right track, but we have a K-shaped recovery, I believe. By the way, same with individuals. Think about it. If you own your own home, the value of your home has probably gone up. You’re probably in pretty good shape, particularly if you’re trying to sell your home right now, it’s a good time to sell, I guess. If you’re invested in the stock market, which a lot of people who own their own homes are, it’s been darn good. The market increase has been substantial. I was on a program this morning where they were talking about how the NASDAQ is back up again, the tech stocks. If you’re in the tech world, you’re doing great. But let’s say you don’t own your own home, let’s say you’re a renter. Your rent is likely going to start going up, if it hasn’t already. Let’s say you’re not invested in the markets, you’re not taking advantage of that and yet your job is at risk, maybe gone. So, again, K-shaped, isn’t it? Some people are doing quite well. Others are still having a rough time and need help to be able to deal with the issue of the coronavirus and the economic fallout from that.

“By the way, this K-shaped recovery, I believe, has increased inequality in terms of our income in this country. And income inequality was something that we were making progress on. In February, we had the 19th straight month of wages increasing over three percent in this country, just in February, not long ago. By the way, most of that increase was among lower and middle-income workers. That was positive, that was where we wanted to head as a country. That’s why so many of us pushed for tax reform and regulatory relief thinking that would get this economy moving and help those workers who are in the lower and middle income bracket the most, and guess what? It did. But that has changed now. So we have to, here in Congress, in my view, continue to help, continue to do things that will help on the health care crisis and with regard to the underlying economic situation that’s affected by it.

“One thing that I think was very positive about today is that we were able to pass legislation that has many, many bipartisan elements to it. I think the vote we just had, again, where a majority of senators in this chamber voted for a targeted COVID-19 approach, I think this gives us a chance to reset, a chance to get back to the bargaining table. A chance to say, okay, now the Republicans have put forward a proposal that has a lot of very reasonable provisions in it. The Presiding Officer here today was part of that. He put in provisions into the bill that have to do with our schools, widely popular. There’s other provisions in there that I think there’s very little disagreement on. Let me highlight a few of them.

“One is on the health care response, particularly on our testing capacity. Republicans and Democrats alike know that testing is critical. We need it. In Ohio we’re looking for more funding for testing because we know that’s how you stop the spread of this disease -- testing, contact testing and getting to these hotspots and trying to contain it. That way people will feel more comfortable, by the way, returning to work, returning to shop, returning to school. So this is something that is in this legislation, $16 billion alone for testing. The legislation that was voted on this afternoon in this chamber was voted positively by a majority of the senators.

“Just last week in Ohio, I visited the Health Collaborative, which is a multiagency coalition approach to dealing with COVID-19. It includes hospitals, county commissioners, health commissioners, even nursing homes. They are utilizing the $19 million they’ve received through the CARES Act to fund, design, and execute a testing strategy for people in the southwest Ohio area. I am really pleased to see them take the funding and using it in this way because now more and more people are getting the opportunity to be tested, and by the way, they are doing it on a no-needs basis. There is no need to pay for this testing with your insurance if you don’t have it, everybody is welcome to get a test. These kinds of initiatives are a big help. I’m glad in this legislation that we voted on this afternoon, we added another $45 billion in total to HHS to go towards testing, vaccine development – to get this vaccine as quickly as possible, distribution of the vaccine, helping on the antiviral medications, this shark tank concept, that again, the Presiding Officer and others have been involved with, is brilliant because it sort of tells the private sector, ‘look we’re going to provide you the basic funding to go out there and compete to come up with a safe way to develop a vaccine or antiviral therapy’, and that has encouraged competition, and at an unprecedented speed we are developing these alternatives. Thank goodness. We need them and hopefully by the end of this year we will have them.

“Second, I think we agree that Congress should double down on any COVID-19 policies in previous legislations that have worked well and one, of course, is what’s called the Paycheck Protection Program. That’s in this legislation we voted on today, too. Back on August 8th it ended, so if you’re a small business out there and have not already taken advantage of the PPP program that many of your peers have and you have seen them be able to keep their doors open because of it, you’re out of luck right now because the program is not accepting new applicants. We need to extend that program. I think everybody agrees on that. I don’t know a senator in this chamber that doesn’t have an experience back home of a small business saying, ‘I couldn’t have stayed open without this.’ I visited three or four businesses just in the past few weeks in Ohio, all of them had the same story. Different timing, you know, different businesses. Some in construction, some in the restaurant business, some in manufacturing, but what they all tell me is they needed that influx badly. It provided them a low-interest loan, one percent, that converted into a grant effectively because the loan was forgiven if they used it for their salaries or for their utilities or for their mortgage or rent. They would have had to close their doors and let a lot of people go. They were able to hang on. And for some of these businesses, like the manufacturer I visited, thank goodness, because they would have let go 30 percent of their workforce. They didn’t have to do that, they kept everybody on and now they’re going great guns, they’re looking for people. By the way, they are having a tough time hiring people. They are looking for people. And that’s a good sign that you have businesses out there trying to pull people in the workforce. So that’s in this legislation.

“My hope is that we’re going to see Republicans and Democrats agree on this. I think they do agree, reinstating the PPP for the foreseeable future so that more small businesses can take advantage of this smart loan program is a smart thing to do and it is more targeted and it does require that you show a loss of revenue. That’s okay, that’s good. We want this to be targeted and focused. We don’t want to waste money. Third, the bill reflects that members on both sides of the aisle recognize that Congress should give additional support to our schools. I mentioned this earlier, but $105 billion in this bill goes to education, about $70 billion to K-12, our primary and secondary schools and high schools, and that’s needed right now. We’re trying to reopen around the country and many of these schools are telling me, ‘Rob, I’ve got additional costs, I have these Plexiglas shields I have to put up, I have to reconfigure the classroom, I have to hire more teachers because I want smaller classrooms.’ So if someone gets sick, they’ll be infecting a smaller group. There’s funding that’s needed for remote learning. So this is good for us to provide funding for these schools because that will enable them to reopen and reopen safely and stay open. That’s in this legislation. By the way, there’s also money in here for colleges and universities, I think about $30 billion for that. Again, the same thing I’m hearing from our colleges and universities. some of which are having a tough time staying open, they need more help, more testing, more PPE, personal protective gear. So this is important too and, again, that is all in this legislation.

“Interestingly, I mentioned the HEROES Act earlier, a $3.5 trillion bill that the House Democrats passed not too long ago as kind of their alternative. That had funding for schools also. But, guess what, this bill that was passed -- well, not passed, but voted on by a majority of senators today in the United States Senate -- actually has slightly more money than the HEROES Act has for education. What’s the big issue here? Why can’t we get together and figure this out? So there’s so many opportunities here.

“Finally, I would just say that one thing that this bill does, and one reason it’s called a targeted bill is it repurposes funding that we have already appropriated here in the first four or five bills but that has not been used and is not likely to be needed. So isn’t that smart? I mean as taxpayers don’t you want to be sure we’re not just throwing money at this problem that’s not needed and the Treasury Department in particular has been helpful in working with us saying they got a bunch of money that they could use for a loan program they haven’t had much take up on because frankly the commercial lending is going pretty well right now. People are able to get money from their banks so they don’t need to come to Treasury or the fed as much as we thought they might. So, there’s money left over, we’re talking hundreds of billions of dollars. So that should be used to offset the cost of any new program. I think that’s just a common sense idea. I can’t imagine anybody in this chamber, if they think through this, would be against us repurposing the funds we’ve already appropriated toward new uses that are more targeted. That’s in this legislation too.

“I think those things all have bipartisan appeal and it seems to me, again, this is a reset. Because, let’s face it, the Democrats have been saying over the past several weeks, ‘well fine, we’ve got our bill we passed, the HEROES Act, what have you guys put out, showing that at least the majority of the Senate and pretty much everyone can support?’ Now we’ve done that. So we have our stake in the ground, they have their stake in the ground. A lot of overlap. I just talked about four areas where there is considerable overlap. But there’s many others as well. We should be able to figure this out on behalf of the American people. Yeah, we have a campaign ongoing for president, for senators, for members of Congress. We’ve got to look out for the interest of the American people here. We can do both. We can campaign and also be working on our legislation that is absolutely needed right now for the health care and economic future of our country. By the way, only about a third of the Senate is up for reelection, so for two-thirds of us, we don’t even have the election to worry about, and yet it seems like this place has become way too political too quickly. Let’s focus on taking this bill that was voted on today, a majority of senators supported it, and figuring out ways to work with Democrats to come up with a new approach that enables us to continue the effort to help with regards to this K-shaped recovery and with regard to the ongoing health care crisis we are facing.

“I want to mention, if I could, three or four other things I’d love to see in the final bill that did not make it in the so-called targeted bill. And I understand why they didn’t, in part because we weren’t looking to put a lot of tax provisions in there because it is not a tax vehicle. But I do think there are other things that have broad bipartisan support that we ought to include. First, I think we would all agree that it is important that the taxpayer-funded research that’s supported by this legislation, research into antiviral medication, research into vaccines, is protected from other countries, in particular China, coming into our country and taking that research. This is taxpayer-funded research and we know from what the FBI has told us, what the Department of Justice has told us, that this is currently a risk. This is currently a risk. With that in mind, we need to include legislation that safeguards our American innovation. This was actually in the legislation that was introduced by Senator McConnell a few weeks ago, called the HEALS legislation and the legislation that I’m talking about is the Safeguarding American Innovation Act. It stops this kind of theft of research and innovation at our research institutions, our colleges, our universities. That’s one where Republicans and Democrats have come together. It’s a bipartisan bill. It’s the result of a committee process. It’s the result of an investigation that took over a year. It’s the result of a lot of hearings and a lot of work and it’s solid legislation to encourage us to be able to protect the research that we’re doing, including on the coronavirus.

“Second, there’s been, for a while now, a bipartisan consensus that a smart coronavirus response should include tax incentives to help our economy to be able to not just open and reopen, but do so safely and effectively. Small business owners I’ve spoken to during this pandemic, especially in recent weeks, have told me they’re eager to reopen but they want to do it in a safe manner, and we want them to do it in a safe manner. Let’s provide some incentives for that. One example of how that process can be helped along is an expanded tax credit for new hiring called the Work Opportunity Tax Credit. It’s already out there. It’s legislation that passed years ago, and it helps, let’s say, veterans, returning citizens who are looking for a second chance. It gives them the chance to get a job because the employer gets a tax credit for a while and then almost always that person ends up getting a job. Let’s include COVID-19 unemployed in that, people who’ve lost their job because of COVID-19. That makes all the sense in the world to get people back to work.

“There’s also something that’s in law now based on the CARES legislation called the Employee Retention Tax Credit. This, I think, is very important. Companies that couldn’t access the PPP because they didn’t qualify or didn’t want to, have access to this program kind of as an alternative. It gives companies a tax credit against their payroll taxes, the employer-side payroll taxes, if they keep people on or bring people on. Again, this makes all the sense in the world right now to encourage more hiring to ensure we can get this economy moving again and do so safely.

“Speaking of safely, I’ve also introduced a new tax credit that was part of the HEALS legislation that was introduced a few weeks ago. It’s called the Healthy Workplaces Tax Credit which helps businesses pay for this protective equipment like the Plexiglas shields, like the PPE that they now need, which is expensive. Just the gowns and the masks and the gloves, those expenses add up, particularly for businesses that are having a tough time because of the weakening economy out there. These credits will help not just to reopen again but to reopen safely, and I think getting these kinds of tax credits into the coronavirus legislation would be very smart. And again, these should be bipartisan efforts.

“Third, while I’m pleased we’re revitalizing the successful PPP program, I think there are steps to improve it that we ought to take up in whatever our final package is. For example, one oversight in the original PPP legislation is that people who have been convicted of a felony, going back five years, are not able to accept the PPP loan. So one day I get a call from a guy back home, and Troy Parker is his name. Troy said, ‘I can’t get a PPP loan. I am a guy who had a financial issue, a financial fraud issue. I had a felony conviction. I got out of incarceration and I started my own business. I took my second chance,’ he said. ‘I did everything that you are always talking about, Portman, which is we want to especially encourage people to take that second chance. We want to give them the opportunity to get the training to be able to do that.’ Then he went out and hired a bunch of other second chance folks and he started a cleaning business. And it’s quite successful. But obviously with coronavirus, a lot of the offices he cleaned and others said ‘we can’t have you come in.’ He lost his businesses. He was about to shut his doors. He couldn’t get a PPP loan. Why? Because within the last five years he had a felony conviction.

“Well, that’s not what we should be doing here. We shouldn’t be penalizing people who have turned their lives around and done, again, all the right things and hiring other second-chance individuals. We should be helping them to stay on their feet and to continue to do what they’re doing for themselves, the community, their workforce. So we worked with the Treasury Department and to their credit we got them to put forward a temporary solution, which was a change in the rule so that Troy could get his PPP loan and others like him around the country. We now need to make that permanent. So that’s an example of something we should do, totally bipartisan. And I worked with colleagues on the other side of the aisle on this issue and I’ll continue to, because this is one where, again, Republicans, Democrats alike as Americans would want this to be part of the legislation.

“Fourth, while I’m glad this bill reflects the bipartisan support for educational funding, I’d hoped it would also reflect that Republicans and Democrats alike have come out for additional support and flexibility for state and local governments. Now, Ohio has been particularly hard hit here because our cities in Ohio, unlike your city, wherever you are in America probably, can use income taxes as a revenue source. I think 90 percent of cities can’t do that but in Ohio we can. And we do. And obviously income taxes went down with this coronavirus and the economy falling short. So they suddenly find themselves with less revenue coming in and then additional expenses, fire, police, EMS, coronavirus expenses for public health. So it’s been tough for a lot of our cities in Ohio. And so I’ve been pushing for not just more funding on a targeted basis showing need, but also more flexibility to be able to use the funding for closing that revenue gap, which was caused by the weak economy, which was caused by the coronavirus. So it is related. And certainly we ought to be able to do that on a bipartisan basis. That’s what a lot of Democrats have talked about that they would like to do. Well, I’m not the only Republican who wants to work with Democrats on that. We could get that into a final bill and that would help all of our cities. Let’s move forward on this.

“Finally, all of us agree, I think, that we need to have better access to telehealth. And telehealth medicine has been one of the few silver linings in this dark cloud. A lot more of my constituents are using telehealth. One way they’re using it is for behavioral health, mental health services, others for addiction services, but also just generally telehealth has been something that has been very helpful. A lot of people say that in the last few months, we’ve gone five years ahead of where we would have been in terms of telehealth. I think the same is true with regards to teleworking, with regard to telelearning. But with regard to telehealth, one out of four adults, based on a poll I recently saw, a survey by Morning Consult, one of every four adults, 25 percent have used telehealth recently during the pandemic. It’s been a lifeline for so many people, particularly for some people who are fighting addiction and can’t get in-person care to help their recovery or people who have mental health challenges and are able to access telehealth to help them. I’ve worked with the Trump administration to expand telehealth and delivery options, which in some instances has, for instance, allowed addiction specialists to reach new patients they hadn’t been able to reach before. So again, there have been some positives here, but these reforms are only temporary. We need to make these permanent as well. We don’t want to lose ground on this issue so we’ve introduced legislation, Senator Whitehouse on the other side of the aisle and myself, called the TREATS Act. We want that to be part of the final legislation as well.

“We have an opportunity to help with telehealth by expanding broadband access as well so that more Americans can access these services from home. This also relates, of course, to education. When schools are telling us they’re going to go partly in-person classrooms, partly remote or some altogether remote, if you live in a rural area of America, you might not have access to broadband and you’re at a disadvantage. Also a lot of our urban school districts, there may be the infrastructure for broadband but it’s not in the home. So we need to help more in terms of broadband. I’m the Senate sponsor of a bipartisan, bicameral bill called the Rural Broadband Acceleration Act, which basically speeds up the FCC‘s distribution they’re going to make anyway of $20 billion in rural digital funds to go toward the building of broadband networks. This will help spread high-speed internet over more than 400,000 miles of internet fiber cables, bringing about three million new households online immediately if we can get this done. By the way, it employs thousands of workers as well. I think it’s a great investment in infrastructure that’s needed right now. So people talk about infrastructure, this is one we can do right now that helps with regard to telehealth, telemedicine, telelearning and teleworking.

“The nation will be looking to Congress in the coming weeks to work together to make sure that we can improve our response to the coronavirus and help get this economy through a tough time. Now more than ever we cannot revert to the norm, which is partisanship these days. We cannot do that with regard to this issue. Using this new targeted bill as a base, the one that, again, got a majority of senators in this chamber to vote on today and building on some of the areas of agreement I’ve outlined today, we need to come up with an appropriate and effective bill that responds to the challenge. I’m going to continue to work with Republicans and Democrats alike to insist we put the partisanship aside and work on behalf of our constituents to take the necessary steps, to get us through this unprecedented health care crisis, to get us on the other side of the economic crisis. I urge my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to work together to do the same.”