WASHINGTON, DC – Today on the Senate floor, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) discussed how the Biden Administration needs to work with bipartisan members of Congress on the next COVID-19 relief package. As a member of the bipartisan group that wrote the framework for the last $900 billion COVID-19 relief package, Portman believes the Biden administration is taking the wrong approach with its new $1.9 trillion COVID-19 proposal, which was created with no input from Republicans.
In contrast, all five previous COVID-19 rescue packages were negotiated and passed through Congress on a bipartisan basis. He expressed concern that using a process known as reconciliation to move this new bill through the Senate by a simple majority and with no Republican support would run counter to President Biden’s stated goal of uniting the country.
Portman also highlighted the $618 billion proposal he unveiled Sunday along with nine other Senate Republicans, which matches the Biden plan’s funding for the essential health care response to COVID-19, but takes a more targeted approach to the economic crisis by getting needed relief to the individuals, families, and small businesses that need it the most.
Finally, Portman expressed his appreciation for the two-hour meeting he and the other nine Republican senators had with President Biden and Vice President Harris at the White House yesterday to discuss their targeted COVID-19 relief proposal, and stated his hope that the Biden Administration will continue to pursue a bipartisan approach to COVID-19 relief.
A transcript of the speech can be found below and a video can be found here.
I’m here on the floor today to talk about the way forward for this new Congress and the new Biden Administration. Specifically, this afternoon, we are talking about the budget resolution that the Democratic side has proposed. There was a vote today to begin to proceed on that.
My understanding is that by the end of this week, we will have a number of amendments about the budget, and this all goes toward a process called reconciliation, if the two budgets are agreed upon, and that would enable us with 50 votes rather than the normal 60 votes to take on a really important issue, which is the issue of how we should address the COVID-19 pandemic.
“But to me, this is an even bigger question. It’s a question about how we are going to proceed as a Congress working with this new administration. Recall, the Senate is now a 50-50 split. That’s as closely divided as you can possibly be. 50 senators on this side, 50 senators on that side.
The House is more closely divided than it has been in years. And significantly, the American people are more divided than they have been in years.
I think the American people as a general matter — not everybody, but I think the American people are looking for us to deal with these divisions here in the country by working together to try to get something done. By working together to help heal the wounds that are out there.
“As for me, one senator, I am very interested in helping President Biden make good on the pledge that he made on the steps of the Capitol. On the west steps, just that way in the United States Capitol, on Inauguration Day, January 20th, the president said that he wanted to bring our country together. He wanted to help heal those wounds.
He wanted us to work across the aisle. He wanted to go back to an era here where we actually sat down, debated things, worked them out together, and therefore helped bring our country together.
“I hope that with regard to the COVID-19 discussions, that Republicans and Democrats will agree to keep working on charting the federal response to the ongoing health care and economic crisis in a bipartisan way. It’s the one area we’ve done it. You think of all of the division on all of the times when we haven’t been able to find agreement on things around here, one place we have been able to find agreement has been with regard to COVID-19.
Specifically, we have passed five different bills, five bills, with big majorities, bipartisan majorities. One was actually by unanimous consent. The most recent one was just five weeks ago or less at the end of the year, when Congress passed a $900 billion COVID relief package in an entirely bipartisan way. $900 billion, by the way, makes that the second-most expensive legislative package that Congress has ever passed. $900 billion. The first one was the CARES Act, which also related to the coronavirus pandemic that we are in.
“Over $4 trillion. That’s trillion with a T — has been spent on this, larger than our typical annual budget for everything in government. And you know what? It’s a crisis, and we needed to step up to the plate. But now, while the ink is still drying on the bill that we passed at the end of the year, the Biden Administration has proposed another $1.9 trillion to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
“My own view is that, again, this is an area where we have been able to come together. Let’s do it again. Is there more need out there? Well, when Congress passed the $900 billion legislation, we all said this is a bridge to get us to between now and when the vaccines are readily available, which we all hope happens sooner rather than later.
But there may be some things we need to do in the interim. I think there are. There may be some things after the March-April time period that we haven’t thought about for the vaccine availability. The vaccines are moving out more slowly than expected.
So I, for one, am willing to sit down with Republicans and Democrats alike, as we have done, again, five different times, to work on how we can come together to provide that bridge to a better time when the economy will improve because the COVID-19 issue will have been addressed.
“My concern is that, again, today we started down a track by starting on the budget to end up with budget reconciliation, which would mean a 50-vote rather than a 60-vote margin because the other side of the aisle, Democrats think it would be better not to try to work out something on a bipartisan basis, but to simply use their majority to get something through here that they would like to do that’s consistent with where President Biden’s $1.9 trillion package is.
We’ll see. Maybe they could be successful with that, maybe not, because it would require every member on that side of the aisle to agree with the $1.9 trillion package, which is a comprehensive, complicated package, which includes a number of things addressed to COVID-19 but another number of things that are unrelated to COVID-19.
Some of which are popular, on the other side of the aisle in particular, like changes in tax law that have nothing to do with COVID-19. Changes to the federal minimum wage that have nothing to do with COVID-19.
“But we’ll see. But even if they could pass it, by the barest majority, given that it’s a 50-50 Senate, it’s not the right way to go for our country. I don’t think anybody truly believes it’s the best thing for our country. Again, if we can’t come together as Republicans and Democrat, as we have proven we can, time and time again over the last year, what can we come together on? And wouldn’t that poison the well?
Wouldn’t it make it harder for us then to find that common ground on things like infrastructure investments, on things like retirement security? I think it’s going to be harder if we start off on the wrong foot, if we start off in a purely partisan way.
“I was part of the group of five Democrats and five Republicans who sat down. We call ourselves the 908 Coalition because we put together a bipartisan framework, an actual legislation on COVID-19.
This was over the last few months before Christmas. And then at the end of the year, Congress passed the $900 billion bill. Our framework provided a basis for that. It wasn’t exactly the same, but it provided a basis for that.
And frankly, because Republicans and Democrats alike, five and five, were able to agree, it helped get our leadership more focused on how to find a bipartisan result, as we had done previously, because things weren’t going very well. They weren’t talking to each other. They weren’t making the progress that we had hoped.
“So that group has shown that we can indeed come together and make tough choices. Not one thing in that legislative effort was not bipartisan. And by the way, there were five of us on the Republican side, five on the Democrat side. None of us agreed with all of it. It was a matter of compromise.
A word that maybe isn’t too popular anymore, but that’s how you get things done around here. You figure out what is that common ground, what is the way in which you can make progress without having everything your way. So we’ve shown we can do it.
“The 908 Coalition is ready to go again. I will say that what we were able to do with that coalition was to help move the process forward in a bipartisan way. And in the end, we got $69 billion in funding for a vaccine development and distribution, $82 billion to support our students in school, $325 billion to restart the highly successful small business program called the Paycheck Protection Program.
And in unprecedented deficit times where we want to be sure every dollar is wisely spent, that $900 billion was about 1/7th of the size of the Democratic proposal that was originally out there and supported by a lot of Democrats here in the Senate. Not one Republican, by the way. That was a $3.5 trillion bill called the HEROES Act. So we ended up doing something that was smaller but more targeted and more effective at dealing with the immediate problems with no extraneous provisions that had nothing to do with COVID-19. Which was the case of the HEROES Act.
So we’ve done it. Time and time again, five different times. Let’s do it again. If we’re going to continue responding to this crisis in a smart way that meets the needs of our constituents, it’s going to require us having that kind of a good-faith bipartisan negotiation.
“Again, in his inaugural address, President Biden said, ‘This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge and unity is the path forward.’ I don’t think he meant just unity with one party or another. Clearly, in the context of that speech and his other comments, it was about outreach to Republicans and Democrats alike to get back to an era where we work together.
Unfortunately, since that address, the president’s team and his party appear to have chosen a different path, introducing this new COVID-19 package I talked about, without any input, any consultation with any Republican or, for that matter, I think it’s fair to say, any Democrat in this chamber.
I may be wrong, but I know that Democrats who are on the 908 Coalition were not consulted, period. That’s not the way forward. Why would we do that? Why wouldn’t we once again do what we have proven we can do, particularly following what I thought was an excellent speech talking about how we can work together?
“The $1.9 trillion package that was sent up does have extraneous matters that have nothing to do with COVID-19, as the HEROES Act did. I understand that these are popular proposals, particularly on the Democratic side. We can debate those, and we can have a vote on those, but let’s do it outside of the COVID-19 context.
We should have a debate about minimum wage. We should have a debate on changing the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit, which would not affect COVID-19 at all, because no one believes in a year from now we’re be in this position, which is when people could take advantage of those tax credits. But they’re in the legislation, as an example. There are provisions in there for clean energy. That’s a good debate for us to have, but not in the context of this. There’s provisions in there for cybersecurity, $10 billion for improving our cybersecurity in the federal government.
The Presiding Officer and I actually like that idea to have cybersecurity funds and to set up a new way to push back against these terrible cyberattacks that we’ve had, particularly recently, a massive one. But that’s not appropriate for the COVID-19 bill. As much as I’d like to have that debate, let’s do it separately. And by the way, that can be bipartisan as well.
“The $1.9 trillion proposal also has a new round of stimulus checks that are written so that a family with three kids making $290,000 a year can end up getting a check from the federal government. Even if they’ve had no negative impact from COVID-19.
That seems to us to be wrongheaded. And I think frankly a lot of Democrats agree to that, too, and believe it ought to be more targeted toward those who need it the most. The economic analysis in this is clear, which is that these higher-income individuals who have received earlier stimulus checks have ended up not spending them, meaning they don’t stimulate the economy, which is the whole idea of the stimulus checks.
There’s some recent data out by an economist named Chetty, who is well-respected, that says of the $1,400 that the proposal that the president has laid out going to these families, of that $1,400, if someone makes over $78,000 a year, likely they only spend about $105 of that money.
The rest they will save, put in the stock market, do something else with it. But not spend. So let’s target it. We’re not against stimulus checks. But we are against sending stimulus checks to people who are wealthy who don’t need it. That seems like not an effective use of taxpayer dollars at a time of these unprecedented deficits and debts, with our debt being the highest it’s been as a percent of our economy since World War II.
“We also have to realize that the $900 billion that was in the package that just passed five weeks ago or less has not been fully spent. In fact, most analyses show that less than half of that $900 billion has gone out the door. So we can’t know what the impact has been of what we just spent, again, the second-largest expenditure of funds ever in the history of this Congress, because half of it hasn’t even gone out the door — or more.
So let’s do an analysis there. Apparently, without taking the time to see if there are 60 senators willing to move forward with this new idea of a new bipartisan package, this reconciliation approach I talked about earlier is the one that Democrats seem to want to take. It’s a rare process. You have to have a budget passed by both sides. It only happens every few years. The reconciliation is in the underlying budget we’re voting on over the next couple of days here.
It’s something that can be used, reconciliation, only for budget-related issues, only for mandatory spending and for revenue, for taxes and for reducing the debt. So it has to be budget related.
“So actually, some of the things in the $1.9 trillion package can’t even be done by reconciliation, which would mean we would have to be changing the rules of this body in order to include them in reconciliation. That’s another bad idea. First bad idea — not to work on a bipartisan basis, as least try. At least try.
The second one is using reconciliation, which is a mere 50-vote margin, for something that is not directly related to the budget, that has a direct impact. It can’t be merely incidental to the budget, as an example. And there are a number of provisions in there that fit that category. And there is, at least discussion, I’m told — and we’ve heard it openly from my colleagues on the other side – who are saying ‘Well, we’re just going to overrule the chair’ essentially going the nuclear option, as they say.
The nuclear option means that you overrule the chair and by a mere 50 votes change the rules of the Senate. Please don’t do that. That would be, again, sending us down a path of partisanship we don’t need to do. It would be poisoning the well.”
“It would be saying just as getting rid of the filibuster would, “We’re going to change the rules now that we’re in charge.’ The rules are there for a reason, and that is to ensure that to the extent possible, the Senate is a body where you find at least some modicum of bipartisanship to move forward because you have to get those 60 votes, not just 50 votes or 51. But trying to jam through this $1.9 trillion legislation sets exactly the wrong tone for the country and also for the administration.
I think President Biden has a real opportunity to help heal our country. I really do. And by the way, I think he sincerely wants to. That’s why I don’t understand this process. So our 908 Coalition, this bipartisan group, which is now 20 members, 10 Republicans, 10 Democrats, and we took it up to 10 Republicans because we wanted to show that you could get to 60 votes — if you had 50 Democrats, you would have 10 Republicans willing to work with them.
And I’m sure there are many, many more than those 10. I know there are. So this group is now being tested. This group was bipartisan under President Trump, I hope it will be bipartisan under President Joe Biden.
“I hope that bipartisanship shows up quickly before we go down this path. We had a meeting last week of our 908 coalition and our Democratic colleagues asked us what could we support? If it’s not $1.9 trillion what is it? Fair question.
Again, many of us think we ought to find out what happened to the $900 billion dollars first, hard-earned tax money that hasn’t been spent yet. But we said, OK, we’ll put together a proposal that we could support, not that we support all elements of it, but we could support, in order to respond to the president’s $1.9 trillion package and addressing all of the major issues that he addressed.
Over the weekend, we outlined a $600 billion dollar package that does just that. It addresses the most urgent needs of our country. It does not include any of the unrelated provisions in the Democrats’ package that have nothing to do with COVID-19.
What it does contain is the same $160 billion dollars that is in the $1.9 trillion package as it relates to health care. What does that mean? It means that if we’re going to get out of this crisis we find ourselves in, we have to address the COVID-19 issue. Right?
“We’re not just going to have an economy improve immediately to the extent we’d like to see it without dealing with the health care crisis, that is what’s driving the fact that restaurants are closed down, the fact that people are losing jobs through no fault of their own, the fact that we have these economic issues related to COVID.
So the sensible thing to do is to be sure we are dealing with the vaccine development and distribution, dealing with testing, dealing with tracing, making sure we have proper PPE, all of that is in the $160 billion that is in the Biden proposal. It’s also in the proposal that we Republicans on the coalition put forward — $160 billion, the same. So for those issues, we’re consistent with President Biden’s plan on additional health care support.
“Our proposal also prioritizes getting kids back to the classroom, which we think is really important. Specifically, we have $20 billion toward getting children safely back into classrooms, which is on top of the $82 billion we just spent on schools at the end of the year. As a parent, I couldn’t feel more strongly about this. We need to get our children back to school and we need to be sure it’s safe. We can do both.
“We also provide an additional $12 billion for nutrition programs to combat food insecurity and ensure that families, kids, have food on the table. This is consistent, again, with the Biden administration plan. These are ones where we agree.
Our proposal also includes $20 billion for the Child Care and Development block grants so our child care facilities across the country can stay open so that parents can go back to work. Child care is incredibly expensive. Again, this is where we agree.
“We have a new round of $50 billion in financial support for small businesses, but we use it in a program we know works rather than setting up a new program, which would take a long time to put in place.
And we help the hardest-hit families and individuals through expanding unemployment insurance for those who lose their job through no fault of their own. We expand it from where currently ends now in mid-March to the end of June, so June 30th. We extend it at $300 per week, which is the federal supplement now in place there.
“The Biden administration wants $400 rather than $300 dollars and wants to extend it into September, to September 30th. There’s no economic data that says that that will be necessary. If it is, we can take it up again.
So there we have a proposal that’s similar, but more targeted to meet the real needs of our economy. And our proposal also provides direct stimulus checks to Americans who really need that extra amount of money to pay their rent or put food on the table or pay their mortgage.
And by the way, we do it by lowering these limits. Instead of going to families that make $300,000 a year or more, if they’ve got three or four kids, we say let’s cap it at $50,000 dollars for individuals. $100,000 dollars for families. An additional $500 dollars per child.
Again, all the economists say that’s what makes sense because those are the folks that are really going to spend it and need it. Let’s target this to those that really need the help.
“We accomplish all these things at one third of the cost of the Biden proposal. Much of the difference between our proposal and the Biden administration’s is we don’t include the extraneous matters. But also, it’s how we address these two crises, the health care crisis to defeat the underlying disease and the work we’re trying to do to ensure the economy can recover.
Both proposals rightly provide the resources needed to address the health care crisis, as I said. But with regard to the economic crisis, we take a little different approach. Our focus is on getting targeted aid to those who need it the most, in contrast to a large portion of the administration’s $1.9 trillion package, is about spending taxpayer dollars to stimulate an economy that, based on all the data, is already beginning to recover. And that’s something that, frankly, is not an effective use of taxpayer dollars.
“Just yesterday, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, or CBO, reported that the economy is growing quite well right now. They projected 3.7 percent real economic growth in this year we’re in, in 2021.
That’s significant economic growth. That takes into account inflation, real economic growth of 3.7 percent. That just came out yesterday. By the way, the Wall Street Journal does a survey of a bunch of economists, 60 economists and their consensus for the economic growth in this year is not 3.7 percent, it’s 4.3 percent, even better. So the economy is projected to grow quite well this year.
“Importantly, CBO also said that the economy is expected to recover to pre-pandemic levels by the middle of the year. So they say that by June 30th, the economy will be back where it was before the pandemic, which was a very strong economy. I
n fact a year ago, February this month, we had 19 straight months of wage growth of over 3 percent, we had the lowest poverty rate in the history of our country. There was a lot of good things going on in our economy and they say we’re going to get back to that. This is CBO, not me. By the middle of this year.
“Meanwhile, after record high jobless claims we saw last spring when unemployment hit 14.7 percent percent, the national unemployment rate has fallen to 6.7 percent, which means Americans are able to find work for the most part. Is that where I’d like it to be? No, but CBO says the unemployment numbers are going to go down, as does everybody else who have projected this over the next year.
They say it’s going to drop this year to 5.3 percent. 5 percent used to be considered full employment. We’d like to see it even better than that, but the point is, the economy is improving and as we get these virus pandemic issues under control, the economy will improve even more.
“Having the vaccines readily available is going to make a big difference. And of course, again, that’s why we put so much money into that in our proposal. The CBO is basing these projections, by the way, without factoring in any of the new $1.9 trillion.
They don’t assume there will be any more stimulus than we just passed several weeks ago. In other words, while the Biden administration says we need $1.9 trillion in new spending or our economy will tank, CBO says very clearly that’s not true.
Instead, we need to help those who are still struggling and cannot find a job because their industries shuttered or their business isn’t allowed to reopen, and that’s what our targeted proposal will do. Other respected sources agree with CBO’s optimism, I mentioned these 68 economists indicating 4.3 percent economic growth.
The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget said yesterday that the CBO data underscores the need for a targeted package, saying, and I quote, ‘It shouldn’t take $1.9 trillion to fill a $400 billion or an $800 billion hole in our economy.’
“We’ve got more data to suggest that the economy is on a path to recovery. For example, we know that household incomes rose slightly, but they rose in December. This was the first increase in three months, the personal savings rate in December rose significantly, 13.7 percent, indicating there’s a lot of pent up demand right there for people to get out and start spending money again.
To me, all this points to a pretty clear conclusion. That in the immediate aftermath of the $900 billion bipartisan package just passed at year-end, there are simply not a strong argument to spend an additional $1.9 trillion on stimulus.
Instead, we need to use this next COVID-19 package to focus on the ongoing health care challenges of the pandemic, that’s the key thing, And on getting targeted economic relief to the hardest hit Americans, which is what our $600 billion proposal does.
“I appreciate in the last few days, President Biden has expressed more of a willingness to work with bipartisan members of Congress on this critical challenge. After we wrote to President Biden on Sunday requesting a meeting to discuss our targeted COVID-19 relief proposal, he quickly accepted. And yesterday we had a lengthy, and I thought very productive, discussion at the White House.
While we didn’t come to an agreement on a proposal, and as you can see today on the floor, Democrats are moving forward with this budget process regardless, but it was a productive discussion and gives me hope that we can follow the bipartisan approach we have taken for the previous five COVID-19 bills.
“The meeting reaffirmed that there’s a lot of common ground for us to build another bill upon and that we share the belief that we need to ensure the hardest hit individuals, families, small businesses get more support they need during this crisis.
My hope is that we can use these two proposals as a starting point for negotiations on a COVID-19 response package that Congress can pass, as we have before, consistently, with bipartisan support, not through partisan parliamentary maneuvers.
This pandemic gives us an opportunity to come together as Republicans and Democrats and show the American people we can put aside the partisanship and the division that have become the norm around here and get things done.
“If we can’t do it on COVID-19 as we have five times already, what can we do it? I look forward to continuing to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle and with President Biden to follow his stated desire, to make good on his pledge in the inaugural address to work together to respond to this crisis.”