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Washington Lawmakers Try To Sort Out Coronavirus' Economics

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

How do you protect a country from an illness? Closing businesses and telling people to stay home without letting the economic bottom drop out. That's what lawmakers in Washington are trying to negotiate right now. The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, urged members of his body not to wander too far after they passed an emergency relief package yesterday. That's because there's another, even larger stimulus plan in the works. And his team is expected to talk that over with his Senate counterpart, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who joins us now on the line. Senator, thanks so much for being with us.

CHUCK SCHUMER: Good morning.

MARTIN: So this new package, a potential trillion-dollar stimulus measure, I know this is heading into negotiations today, but just explain to our listeners what you are hoping to have in this.

SCHUMER: Yes, what we're hoping to have is four things. We haven't seen the package from Leader McConnell that he's discussed with the White House, but here's what the press reports indicate. They have a thousand dollars, and many of our side think that one shot of a thousand dollars is not enough, and what do you do month after month after month? So if you're going to do...

MARTIN: Right. So we should just put a pause here. The Republicans have suggested at least to give a thousand dollars to every American.

SCHUMER: Everyone.

MARTIN: And you're saying that is insufficient. Do you have a dollar amount that you would propose instead?

SCHUMER: No, here is what we're proposing, which is to greatly expand unemployment benefits. Right now unemployment benefits are limited. Only a limited number of people can get them. Gig workers and many others can't get them. When you get them, they don't pay very high percentage of your salary. And it's cumbersome, takes a long time to apply and to get them.

We're proposing a massive change in the way we do unemployment benefits. You'd get the money quickly. You'd get almost your total salary, if not your total salary. And it would go for months and months and months, so you wouldn't have to worry, is the government going to send me a check next month or the month after? So it's far...

MARTIN: To be clear, that means you are not suggesting a one-off check?

SCHUMER: Correct.

MARTIN: You don't think that's a good idea.

SCHUMER: I think...

MARTIN: OK.

SCHUMER: Well, I'm not saying it's a bad idea; I'm saying it's not sufficient at all.

MARTIN: OK. So that was one of your points. We have limited time.

SCHUMER: OK, second point.

MARTIN: So I'll urge you through.

SCHUMER: OK, let me go through the others. Maybe at the top of the list, we need a massive Marshall Plan for our hospitals. We need more beds. We need more ventilators. We need more equipment. We probably need more doctors and nurses and others on board.

And so we recommended the other day that the president invoke something called a DPA, Defense Production Act, which would allow him to take over the factories - this has happened in wartime - to make the ventilators, but other things, too. Some of the hospitals in New York have told me they don't have swabs. So they get the tests, but they don't have the nasal swab to do it. The second thing we need is the unemployment dimension. The third - paid sick leave, paid family leave. Lots of people - what if kids, you know...

MARTIN: I thought this just was negotiated, though, senator, in the...

SCHUMER: No. It...

MARTIN: ...Emergency aid funding that just passed.

SCHUMER: OK. Much more expanded.

MARTIN: OK.

SCHUMER: It's a good point, Rachel. It doesn't cover enough people for a long enough period of time at a great enough amount of money. And fourth, if they're going to do these corporate bailouts, we want to make sure they're for the workers. The lesson of 2008 is they helped the big boys and they didn't help the average person. So if they're going to get this money - you know, the airline industry and the travel industry and all of these others - we want to make sure they keep all their workers without salary cuts.

We want to make sure they don't use this money for stock buybacks. The airline industry, for instance, last year did - when they got that big tax cut, did $39 billion of stock buybacks. That's money they could have had to deal with the problems now. So we don't want that. We don't want the money to go to CEO salaries or to the shareholders. Those are the ones who should be more on the lines than the workers, who have done nothing wrong. Our package is extensive and aimed at the problem.

MARTIN: Is that going to cost more than a trillion dollars?

SCHUMER: Yes. Yes. But this is a crisis. And if we don't act boldly, it will linger for a very long period of time, and that'll be much worse economically and end up costing us more.

MARTIN: The benefit of the proposal from the Republicans and Steve Mnuchin in particular, the Treasury secretary, has said that Americans need relief right now. He wants to cut a check to every single individual so that payments would go out in two weeks. Is what you're proposing - not this immediate stimulus that would go into their pockets, but a larger, holistic systemic reform - would that delay the relief?

SCHUMER: No, because the unemployment insurance is right there. You could do both together. Ours is longer term, much more targeted and would help deal with this in the long run. Just the one $1,000 check - you can pay your rent and buy your food in April, and what are you doing in May?

MARTIN: I want to ask you about the two members of Congress who have now been tested for COVID-19 and tested positive. We're talking about Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida and Ben McAdams of Utah. Senator, what kind of precautions are you and your colleagues taking against this?

SCHUMER: OK. One of the highlights of our Senate week in normal times is a Tuesday lunch where 47 Democratic senators get together in a relatively small room, have lunch and discuss what our plans are the week - the unity we need to have. We did that telephonically. Every one of the senators was on the phone, but they were on the telephone. We do have to still do some votes because we had to get this second package you mentioned out. But we're telling everybody to maintain social distance. So we're not having committee hearings or anything like that. The same thing that people are - the American people are being asked to do, we are implementing.

MARTIN: How do you make allowances for lawmakers who cannot be physically present to vote on things like a trillion-dollar stimulus package?

SCHUMER: OK. What we will do - Amy Klobuchar, who's head of our rules committee, is going to come up with a plan with - if need be, we can end up voting telephonically only during an emergency. We think it's constitutionally allowed.

MARTIN: Senator, lastly, we are hearing excruciating stories from people who can no longer visit their dying loved ones. This is separate from the coronavirus - people who've just - are suffering from terminal diagnoses.

SCHUMER: At nursing homes, right. Yes.

MARTIN: And nursing homes. And also of - from all these people who have lost their jobs. Are you thinking about whether we will get to the moment when all these precautions, necessary now - but whether we will get to a place where they are no longer worth the social and economic costs?

SCHUMER: That's a very important and very difficult question. You know, I lived through the Sept. 11 crisis in New York. I lost three friends. This crisis is so different because what New Yorkers and Americans like to do during a time of crisis is come together, but because this - of the nature of this crisis, we have to remain apart. And that means, of course, visiting loved ones who are sick or very ill. It means all kinds of things, you know, that are less severe but very heartbreaking to people - weddings and family celebrations and things like that. And that's something that has to be weighed.

MARTIN: Senator, Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, we so appreciate your time this morning. Thanks for talking with us.

SCHUMER: Thank you. Thank you. And let's hope we get through this. I know we will if we all work together.

MARTIN: Indeed. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.