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Coronavirus

Floor Speech

Date: Oct. 21, 2020
Location: Washington, DC

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Mr. LEAHY. Mr. President, I concur with everything that our distinguished assistant leader has said.

We are in the middle of the most devastating health crisis in modern history, and the American people are paying a terrible price. Nearly 220,000 Americans have died in just 10 months. To put that in perspective, that is significantly more than the number of Americans who died in the Korean, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan wars combined-- all of them.

Remember President Trump calling himself a ``war President''? President Trump said he was a ``war President.'' Well, has he acted like one? No. He called the virus a hoax. He has been AWOL ever since.

Millions have lost their jobs. They are struggling to make ends meet. People are being evicted from their homes. They are living in their cars and in shelters or on the street. They are relying on the generosity of others, and the virus is still not remotely under control. The need for another comprehensive emergency funding bill to address the COVID crisis is obvious. It is urgent and has been for 5 months. And what is the Senate doing? Staging show votes on COVID relief bills that the majority leader knows will go nowhere. And then they go back on their word--both the majority leader and the chairman of the Judiciary Committee--on what they said a year ago, and they try to rush through the nomination of a Supreme Court Justice less than 2 weeks before the election, after millions of Americans have already voted.

So where are their priorities?

I know where mine are. They are with the families of the 220,000 Americans who have lost their lives to this virus. They are with the thousands of Vermonters and millions more across the Nation who lost their jobs during this pandemic. They are with the small business owners trying to stay afloat during this crisis. They are with the fathers and mothers wondering if they will be able to pay next month's rent or put food on the table, and they are with the children struggling to learn through Zoom calls and online classes. It is a national disaster, and it requires real solutions.

We need a comprehensive bill to address this problem. We can't do it with fig leaves or do it piecemeal, like Senator McConnell wants to do. We can't pass an inadequate bill today on the chance that maybe we will come back later and do what we should have done to begin with. That is not how it works. Everyone knows that.

We have one chance for the remainder of this year to get it right, and we owe it to the American people, everybody--I don't care if they are Republicans, Democrats, Independents--everybody--to try.

The majority leader staged a show yesterday. He didn't bring up a comprehensive proposal for COVID relief and open it for debate. He called for a process vote and only one part of it, the Paycheck Protection Program. Well, I support that program. We all do. It is critical in keeping literally thousands of small businesses afloat. But take a look at this proposal. It falls flat. It ignores critical improvements to the programs that would be made by considering the Heroes Act--expanding access to all nonprofits, making critical-access hospitals eligible for PPP, and addressing arbitrary caps on various loan programs to help small businesses.

More importantly, it is providing more funding for these programs, and nothing else would even remotely solve the problems facing our country. The economy will not come back until the American people have confidence that the virus has been vanquished. We need more funding for the PPP program. We all agree with that. We need to fix that program and do so much more.

We have to invest more in testing. It needs to be based on a national testing and contact tracing strategy so we can quickly identify cases and isolate those who have been exposed. How many times do we have to say it? We need to develop a vaccine distribution program now so it can be up and running as soon as the vaccine is available. We have to provide personal protective equipment to those on the frontlines. We have to ensure our hospitals have the resources they need to take care of the ill. We need to keep our nursing homes safe and virus-free.

Doing targeted bills aimed at one sector is the way to avoid doing what is really needed. It picks winners and losers at a time when everyone is struggling. No matter how much aid we give to small business or airlines or to our struggling restaurant industry, our economy won't come back until the virus is under control.

We need a comprehensive bill, not the so-called McConnell ``skinny'' bill we are voting on today, which provides only $500 billion of COVID relief, less than half of even what the Trump administration proposed just a month ago.

Look at the lines at food banks. They are skyrocketing during this crisis, but there is nothing in this bill for nutrition assistance. Look at the millions of Americans who are struggling to pay next month's rent or to keep up with their mortgage payments. Notwithstanding the wishful thinking of the President, this is a massive problem, and either the President doesn't know it or he doesn't care. Maybe it is both.

Today there are over 25 million Americans unemployed, compared to just 2 million at the end of January, and the unemployment assistance in this bill is totally inadequate.

There is nothing in the bill for State and local governments that are on the frontline fighting this virus. There is inadequate money for testing, education, and childcare; no funding for community health centers; no funding to fight this on a global level. We are not going to defeat this pandemic if we ignore what is happening outside of the United States. Americans can't safely resume international travel and commerce.

I can go on. There is so much that is missing.

So what do they put in? They turn something over to the well-paid lobbyists of corporations by providing sweeping liability shields for corporate wrongdoers who have failed to do their part to keep employees, consumers, and patients safe. That tells you everything you need to know about what is in it. A special earmark for big corporations comes ahead of struggling American families.

We know it is not going to pass. It shouldn't pass. Let's start working and getting something that can be passed instead of this. The House passed the Heroes bill over 5 months ago, and they passed it again 3 weeks ago. Why don't we take it up and vote it up or vote it down? Let's have some votes. Let's make people stand up and see what they are really for. If we don't, then, democracy has failed the American people.

I remain hopeful that Speaker Pelosi and Secretary Mnuchin's talks will result in a comprehensive deal on COVID relief that will solve real problems in America. Speaker Pelosi has already shown a willingness to compromise, and the other side must do the same. If it does, Senator McConnell must commit to bring it to the floor for a vote immediately, even if he personally opposes it, or the majority of his caucus opposes it. That is the way democracies are supposed to work. The American people have waited long enough.

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