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Republican Senator (And Medical Doctor) On Legislative Response To Coronavirus

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

What exactly is Congress doing to respond to the coronavirus pandemic? There is the $8-plus billion (ph) emergency bill that was signed into law in March 6. There is a separate, potentially huge stimulus package that both House and Senate leaders say they're working on that could include, among other items, tens of billions in bailouts for the airline industry. And then, right now, there's the package the House already passed that the Senate is due to vote on - a package that includes free coronavirus testing for all; also includes two weeks paid sick leave, but millions of workers won't be covered. We speak now with one of the senators who will be voting on it, Louisiana Republican Bill Cassidy.

Senator, welcome to All Things Considered.

BILL CASSIDY: Thank you, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So I know there are some technical fixes coming from the House side that y'all are waiting on, but can you give me a ballpark? When do you expect the Senate to vote? And how do you expect you'll be voting?

CASSIDY: Well, we don't know the final package. It will be Wednesday or Thursday. Of course, I am all about, how do we protect the American society, the family, the individual and the employers from what could be catastrophic for them? And so, of course, I want to read the legislation. But, of course, I'm inclined to vote for something, even if it has a couple of warts on it, because we have to protect both individuals and their employers. And we need to have an economy that starts going once more after we control the COVID-19 outbreak, if you will, so we'll see.

KELLY: Yeah, a lot of different factors in play here - this issue that I mentioned, that this legislation would provide two weeks paid sick leave - but a whole lot of people wouldn't get that, people who work for really big companies, for example. If you can't keep everybody who's sick at home, does that really go about fixing this and keeping the spread of the virus as low as you can keep it?

CASSIDY: Well, of course, we'll have discussions about that this week. Let me just say this. The intent is that Americans are taken care of. That's the intent. And so if anyone thinks there's a kind of conspiracy that we're not going to take care of one group versus another, that is not the intent. Big employers typically have pretty generous paid sick leave. And so I think part of the rationale is that folks over 500 employees have these benefit programs of one sort or another that can address this issue. We also have to make sure...

KELLY: Doesn't this also apply to employers who are employing fewer than 50 people? They might also be left out.

CASSIDY: So the fewer than 50 is kind of a standard exception, recognizing that such folks typically or oftentimes have very tight cash flow. But, again, we're going to try and find solutions for those groups too. This is not a conspiracy to leave somebody out. It is a - tried to have a consideration so that the job is there when this is all over. If you have somebody with a tight cash flow, you put them out of business, you've not done anybody a favor. If we can find a way to keep them in business and help somebody stay at home, that's what we're seeking.

KELLY: May I ask about the timing and the urgency to this? You're talking about voting Wednesday or Thursday and trying to find solutions, and I know there's no easy fix here. But if the point is to keep the virus from spreading and keep sick people at home, doesn't every hour count?

CASSIDY: Well, you can look at this kind of as, one, every hour does count, simply put. That said right now, if in a country of 350 million people not that many people have been diagnosed - and there are a couple of communities where there has been broader exposure. Louisiana, for example, I think - just a perspective. We're third per capita in the nation in terms of people who've been diagnosed, but we have 136 total cases so far. So out of roughly 3.5 million people, we have 136 total cases. We know there's a lot more, but we just don't know who they are yet. And so I think, hopefully, this becomes available just as testing shows how many people should be staying home.

KELLY: And understanding that you need to see the full legislation and read it all through, there is bipartisan support for this. I mean, if you had to put money on it, you think this is going to pass this week?

CASSIDY: Yes, I think it's going to pass. Again, this is not going to be a perfect piece of legislation, and it's not going to be the last piece of legislation. But I can tell you that people in Washington want to make sure that people in the United States of America end up with this as both having physical health as well as financial health. And that is the goal, even if we're going to have some fits and starts getting there. We are in this together.

KELLY: That is Republican Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, speaking with us there from Capitol Hill.

Senator, thank you.

CASSIDY: Thank you, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.