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Sticking Points In Latest Coronavirus Relief Bill

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's been months since the Democratic-led House, the Republican-majority Senate and the White House started talking about another round of economic relief for the country to deal with the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. But after talks broke down before the election, they've gone weeks without any productive conversations at all.

But they may be getting closer. Yesterday, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she and Senate Majority Leader Republican Mitch McConnell have at least agreed to a mechanism for getting a deal passed. And she said a deal should pass before lawmakers head home for their winter recess.

Now, this news comes at a critical time for the country. The current surge in coronavirus has affected nearly every part of the country, with new cases, hospitalizations and deaths at or near record numbers. And on the economic front, Americans continue to struggle both with loss of income and with uncertainty, as most of the existing relief programs are set to expire at the end of the month.

So what jump-started the talks after months of stalemate? It seems to have been a compromise crafted by a group with members in both parties and both houses of Congress, the Problem Solvers Caucus. So we have the two House co-chairs with us, Representative Josh Gottheimer, a Democrat from New Jersey.

Representative Gottheimer, welcome back. Thanks for joining us once again.

JOSH GOTTHEIMER: Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.

MARTIN: And Representative Tom Reed, a Republican from New York.

Representative Reed, welcome back to you as well.

TOM REED: It's good to be with you. Thanks for having me on.

MARTIN: So, Representative Gottheimer, I'm going to start with you because we've heard most recently from the speaker of the House, and she said that the House leadership is embracing the Problem Solvers' compromise. Now, that's a $908 billion package. Now, that's about half of what the Democrats wanted but about double what the Republicans had initially put forward. So as briefly as you can, can you tell us, where do things stand now?

GOTTHEIMER: As you pointed out, I think, exactly right that it's moving. We've gained momentum. It was great to have support of Democratic leadership and, as Tom will talk about, the great strength building from the Republican side. We introduced this in a bipartisan, bicameral way. Fifty Democrats and Republicans from the Problem Solvers Caucus and a group of bipartisan senators also came out with us when we announced the package.

And, you know, I'll tell you it's not everything we wanted, as you pointed out, from where we were a couple months ago. But what we decided to do was focus it on a emergency four-month relief package to get help out to American families and small businesses and communities right away and help us get through this tough winter and cases spiking and into the new year. And that's exactly where we believe we can get consensus and support. And that's how the momentum is building right now. But, of course, it's about getting across the finish line.

MARTIN: And, Representative Reed, I know that you're in the House, but what are your Republican colleagues telling you about the appetite for this in the Senate, because your party controls that chamber? But what do you think about where things stand?

REED: We had a great call. Josh and I participated with our Senate colleagues last night. It was a three-hour call getting into the weeds of those differences that remain. But I will tell you through those conversations, our Republican colleagues in the Senate are acting in good faith. You see leadership. You've had Senator Thune, for example, offering some public comments that were very favorable of saying we have to get a deal done, and now is the time to do it. And the framework that we put together, this $908 billion, is laying the fruit for the folks to move. We broke the logjam. Now we just got to keep that momentum going to the finish line.

MARTIN: What's been the sticking point on your side, Representative?

REED: To be blunt, up to the election, it was presidential election and the majority in the House and Senate that were in play from everybody's perspective, in my humble opinion. And everybody was afraid to not put politics to the sideline and deal with what needed to be done. Because once you put the politics aside - and this is what jump-started, I think, these talks here - is members said to the folks, you know what? Enough of politics. Now it's time to substantively deliver for the people back home.

MARTIN: Representative Gottheimer, what's been the sticking point on your side? It's - is it the direct relief, the enhanced unemployment compensation? I mean, I - it's my understanding that a lot of progressives believe that these $1,200 payments that go directly to people on unemployment is the kind of the critical part of relief. So what's been the sticking point on your side?

GOTTHEIMER: Well, as I'm sure you've heard for months now, and the same points that have, you know, held us back in part in the past, whether it's state and local resources, state and local governments and liability and worker protection and how - the exact language on how those will fall out and how they'll be included.

But I'll tell you, as Tom said, we were on the phone once again last night with our Senate colleagues for hours. And Tom and I both pulled over at rest stops 'cause we were on our way home from Washington. And, you know, we're making very good progress there, and I think we'll get there.

MARTIN: I'm going to ask each of you to tell me one or two things about the package that you think is most important, recognizing that, you know, a $908 billion package is going to have a lot of things in it. So could you just each tell me one or two things that you think the public should know about this, should this compromise as it's currently kind of crafted - like, the base of it - move forward? Representative Gottheimer.

GOTTHEIMER: It definitely should move forward. And as I said a second ago, you know, the state and local support for our towns of all sizes, help for getting out the vaccine, which is key right now, distribution, more for testing. I said unemployment key, another $300 a week supplemental to help families and support for our small businesses, another round of PPP to help our small businesses get through this. And those are just some of the things, not to mention nutrition and child care and others, you know, that I brought up before.

MARTIN: Representative Reed, one or two things that you think are most important about this package.

REED: As a former mayor, making sure that the money gets to our local governments has been a critical thing I've advocated for. And in this package, we make sure that that occurs and that not all the money goes to the state capitals. There is aid there, but also that the local governments get relief, especially those local governments that are 500,000 people and smaller that didn't receive any of the local and state aid that was in the original 150 billion that went out.

And then when you talk about the businesses and the unemployment pieces, I think we struck a fair balance that recognizes people are suffering in regards to not having a job, not getting a paycheck, so the unemployment is designed to address that. But at the same time, small businesses in particular are being hit and are being hit as this surge continues and you look at mitigation shutdowns occurring to contain the virus, and so the Paycheck Protection Program - replenishing that and allowing folks to have access to that.

MARTIN: I just wanted to ask each of you, you know, it's not a secret that a lot of major institutions in American life are not highly regarded by the public at the moment, and that's true of Congress as well. You know, both of you talk about, you know, hyper-partisanship in recent months and just, you know, how destructive it is. On the other hand, you know, each of you has a base that wants you to fight, you know, for the things that they believe in.

And I'm just interested if you have thoughts about - you know, both the House and the Senate are going to be returning to, you know, close margins - right? - I guess a 50/50 - close to a 50/50 situation. I mean, the House Democrats' margins are narrower than they were in the last Congress, and the Senate - you know, we know that the control of the Senate is going to hinge on these special elections in January. But in any case, it's going to be razor-thin margins.

So I'm just interested in if each of you has thoughts about how these conversations can be more productive going forward or how we can - how the country can - I don't know if lower the temperature is the right way to put it, but do you have thoughts about that?

REED: I think that what we founded in the Problem Solvers Caucus four years ago is growing in interest and support not only in Congress, but across the country. And our caucus is founded on the belief - look; we are proud Republicans. I'm a proud Republican, and Josh is a proud Democrat. But we also recognize we are Americans first. And what we do is we do not shy away from our ideology, but we're willing to listen to each other, and we're willing to trust each other.

We're the only forum where we actually, as Democrats and Republicans, come together every week to solve these problems. And we do it based on respect and trust because we've gotten to know each other. And so I think with this slim majority that's coming down, the Problem Solvers Caucus is positioned to not only be those that will stand up to maybe the extremism on both sides, but also be the lubricant to have us be in a position to govern again once and get that credibility back to the institution that the House needs to gain because I agree with you.

We can only go up from where we're at. And I'll tell you I am proud to be part of a Problem Solvers Caucus that is doing exactly that.

MARTIN: Representative Gottheimer, what about you?

GOTTHEIMER: I mean, I couldn't agree more with Tom. I mean, I - you brought up exactly the right point. We're going to be living in a closely divided Congress and government, right? I mean, we could have a four- to six-seat margin in the House. And either way the Senate goes, it's going to be razor-thin. The only way we're going to be able to get the vice president and president-elect's agenda passed and able to move our country forward is by working together and by including voices from both sides at the table. Otherwise, you'll never be able to get anything signed into law.

And we all want to - the Problem Solvers, as Tom pointed out - we come together for one purpose - to govern, to put country ahead of partisan politics. And that's not always popular. I get it. You know, people, they're - what they show on cable news and on social media is people screaming and yelling and fighting. And I think the country is sick and tired of it. I think they actually want us to get together. They want us to solve their problems. They want help with COVID relief and infrastructure and health care and so many things that matter to them. And they get it done in their lives every day. They expect us to do the same.

And, you know, as Tom pointed out, that's exactly what our focus is as the Problem Solvers Caucus. We come together. We're very proud of our - obviously, proud of our respective parties and what we stand for and our positions, but we're willing to actually talk to one another and to listen to one another and to understand that we're not going to always get everything we want, but it's about getting most of what we want and moving forward.

MARTIN: We've been hearing from the co-chairs of the House Problem Solvers Caucus. We just heard from Representative Josh Gottheimer, who's a Democrat from New Jersey, and we heard from Representative Tom Reed, who is a Republican from New York.

Gentlemen, thank you both so much for speaking with us today.

GOTTHEIMER: Thank you so much.

REED: Thank you for having us on.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOLIFE'S "ALL LIGHTS OUT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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