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Sen. Bill Cassidy On A Proposed Bipartisan Coronavirus Relief Package

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A day after Christmas, millions of Americans will lose pandemic unemployment benefits. Congress is now trying to strike a deal to extend that aid. The starting point is a $908 billion proposal being pushed by a bipartisan group of lawmakers. It does not include the $1,200 checks, the direct payments, that millions of Americans got under the CARES Act. But it would prop up the Paycheck Protection Program and extend unemployment insurance.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The plan also has Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell talking again for the first time in weeks about a compromise. President Trump has not explicitly backed the $900 billion proposal, but said Thursday he'll support whatever deal comes out of those talks.

Bill Cassidy is one of the lawmakers who worked on the bipartisan framework. He's a Republican senator from Louisiana. Senator Cassidy, thank you for joining us.

BILL CASSIDY: Hey. Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: So I want to talk about some of the differences in the bipartisan proposal from what we've seen elsewhere on the Hill. Compared to what the bill that Senator McConnell, the majority leader, supports, your framework has money for states and local governments. His does not. And he's called that money a blue-state bailout. What's your response to that?

CASSIDY: Couple of things - we have provisions to keep it from being used for pension funds shortfalls. I think that was the concern. But secondly, if you look at the projections for state revenues in the coming fiscal year, that is neither blue nor red. It is both colors. So Texas, for example, is one of the states that would - is projected to have the greatest impact. Louisiana per capita is going to have one of the greater impacts, so might Alaska and North Dakota. So I think going forward, it would be very hard to call this a blue-state bailout. I think it is kind of...

CORNISH: Why do you think you still hear that line of criticism from Republicans, not just McConnell? And what are you saying to counter it?

CASSIDY: A couple of things - the soul of education is repetition. And so, of course, people have some preconceived notions, but you just have to, again, push back upon that. In fact, one person who was opposed mentioned that - heard from a lot of small-town mayors and this kind of moved this particular senator toward support. And by the way, I would also say that there is broader support in the Republican Senate, even including this provision, because of the other provisions which are seen essential. It is also recognized that the only bill that will pass is a bipartisan bill. When you have a bipartisan bill, there's always some things that maybe you wouldn't write if you're writing by yourself, but because you want it to pass, you include it. People recognize that as well.

CORNISH: I want to push on that issue just a little bit more because McConnell has been talking about stimulus somewhere in the ballpark of $500 billion for months. He's stuck to that number. Meanwhile, Democratic leaders - House Speaker Nancy Pelosi; the Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer - have said, look, we'll settle for a lower amount of money than they'd been hoping for in order to back this deal, this framework that you've drawn up. Is it time for McConnell to give a little bit, too?

CASSIDY: Well, McConnell said in his comments recently, something along the lines that we want a bill which is - which can pass, which can be signed into law, in effect, not a messaging bill. Arguably, the $2.2 trillion Heroes Act - in fact, entirely, that was a messaging bill. There was nothing bipartisan about it. It was a wish list. You can that argue that the McConnell bill, initially - the skinny targeted package - was entirely a messaging bill. It was not bipartisan. We are the only bipartisan and bipartisan in both the House and the Senate bill there is.

So if Mitch McConnell says that he wants a bill which can pass, he's really talking about a bill such as ours. And in your introduction, you mentioned that Trump had not supported it. Trump actually said yesterday that he would support a $908 billion bill. Now, he backed off a little bit later. He said he would support a $908 billion bill. And so I actually think that we're now getting support from the president on this. And we - if Mitch...

CORNISH: So those are good signals to you, that kind of...

CASSIDY: Very good signals.

CORNISH: ...I would call them mixed signals, but it sounds like you see it as a positive.

CASSIDY: You know, you don't suddenly go from a light to dark in politics by flipping on a switch. You go where people's attitudes evolve, adjust to a new reality and are influenced by the attitudes of others. That's what we're emerging to. So eventually, you know, Saint Paul says seeing through a dark - through a glass darkly - the shadows behind a glass - but gradually, that becomes clearer.

CORNISH: At the end of the month, there are many citizens who will see whatever little relief they've gotten from their states, from the federal government, run out. What's your message to them since they're not included in this package?

CASSIDY: I think they are included in the package. What makes you say that they're not? We have unemployment benefits that will continue for four more months. We have payroll protection plan that will go to the employers. Recall a condition of receiving that, or at least a strong carrot embedded in it, is to keep people employed. We're going to have food relief...

CORNISH: But with this many people unemployed - right? - that's not helpful to them.

CASSIDY: I'm not sure I follow...

CORNISH: There's not, like, a direct stimulus payment.

CASSIDY: If you're getting $300 a week, supplemental unemployment insurance, that's pretty direct to me. I'm not quite sure - we may just disagree on the term direct.

CORNISH: So right now, your message to citizens is that they're getting the support they need from the federal government.

CASSIDY: Well, define - you have a couple of terms in there that are pejorative, you know, kind of a step...

CORNISH: Which part - federal, government or support?

CASSIDY: As in the support they need.

CORNISH: Oh, I see, the phrasing. OK.

CASSIDY: There's always going to be somebody who wants more support. And so it almost embreds (ph) this cynicism into the statement. I'm not, you know - I'm just - as I perceive it. Let me just say that.

CORNISH: Thank you for clarifying.

CASSIDY: We're doing our best to bring relief to the people who most need it.

CORNISH: In the meantime, when do you think - what should we be listening for in terms of an agreement being reached?

CASSIDY: Well, shoot...

CORNISH: What's the timing you're hoping for?

CASSIDY: Yeah. So, obviously, we have limited time, and it's possible this would be included in a year-end spending deal. And it certainly is still not a done deal. We're still working so hard on it. Most importantly, we have both senators and House of Representatives who are Democrats and Republicans both supporting and critical masses of both, we think. And boy, just keep your fingers crossed. And if you believe in prayer, say a prayer.

CORNISH: That's Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy, a Republican. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

CASSIDY: Hey, thank you, Audie. Enjoyed the interview. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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