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National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021--Conference

Floor Speech

Date: Dec. 10, 2020
Location: Washington, DC


Mrs. BLACKBURN. Mr. President, I have to tell you, every day, I am hearing from Tennesseans who are asking what we are going to do about COVID relief. It is coming up in nearly every conversation that I have--with our county mayors, with citizens, with employers and employees; conversations with those who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own. Why can't we get something done?

The phones really started ringing last week when Speaker Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, accidentally revealed that it was politics and not principle that convinced her to spend months--months--standing between the American people and targeted relief that they are asking for and that they desperately need. It was politics--all politics to her. People were pawns that she was moving around, trying to get her way.

It is disgusting. It is a tragedy. But I will tell you this: It is nothing new. In fact, since July, Democrats have continuously blocked efforts to provide targeted relief. The minority leader obstructed these efforts in the hopes of passing a $3 trillion bill. That is right, trillion--$3 trillion bill. It was filled to the brim with partisan proposals that had nothing do with the pandemic and a bailout for fiscally irresponsible States and cities.

Tennesseans are very much opposed to having their hard-earned dollars that are tax dollars that come to the Federal Government used to bail out States that have chosen not to be fiscally responsible. They say: Above all else, do not bail out these States, these cities, these pension funds.

Let's be clear to the American people. It is the Speaker of the House and the minority leader who are holding noncontroversial relief--they are holding it hostage. There should be another round of PPP. There should be another increase, a plus-up, of unemployment. There should be more money for vaccines, testing, and getting children back to school. But, oh, no. For months, what did they want to do? Play politics. Play politics with people's lives. If that isn't the most tone-deaf thing that I have ever heard, I don't know what is. Perhaps some of my friends across the aisle should check their mail and make certain that their office phones are being answered. People are quite upset with them.

It doesn't stop there. I wish it did. It only gets worse. In the fall, the Democrats filibustered targeted relief proposals not once but twice and rejected a much needed extension of the Paycheck Protection Program almost as soon as it was proposed. This month, more of the same. Their refusal to negotiate in good faith has made it abundantly clear to the business owners, the healthcare providers, and millions of other struggling Americans that partisan grandstanding is more of a priority for Democrats than doing their jobs.

The American people are not pawns, and it is time my colleagues in the minority stopped treating them as such. The House Speaker and Senate Democrats might have all the time in the world to stall. Maybe they are pretty comfortable with where they are. But outside of this Chamber, for a lot of our families and small businesses that are struggling, it is the eleventh hour. Now is not the moment to strong- arm the U.S. Senate into rubberstamping a radical liberal wish list. It is time to step up and deliver relief--targeted relief, relief we all agree will mean the difference between survival for many of these small businesses and economic collapse; money and support for vaccines; another full round of PPP funding for the businesses that need it most; and support for our frontline heroes and essential workers.

This bullet list of absolute essentials must also include reasonable, responsible liability protections for small businesses and healthcare workers. These protections are the flip side of relief funding. Without them, we take these business owners and workers out of one bad situation and put them right into another one. Without them, we effectively force entire industries to choose between economic survival or, in the case of healthcare workers, literal survival and death by opportunistic lawsuits. We can't allow this to happen.

One of the things that I have noticed this past year is how critical it is for us to be able to articulate problems and lay the foundation to address them before an emergency strikes.

In Tennessee, as in many other States, the number of people who live in rural and remote areas poses challenges when it comes to providing a variety of services that we all consider essential, chiefly among them, healthcare delivery and access to high-speed internet. I have worked with healthcare practitioners and advocates to cut a path forward for the widespread use of telemedicine.

Last year, I introduced the Rural Health Agenda to increase access to healthcare for the 60 million Americans who leave in rural areas. A crucial component of that legislative package was a set of provisions that lifted unnecessary regulatory barriers standing in the way of access to telemedicine. As always, it is the redtape that slows up progress. The pandemic only highlighted the importance of opening up contact-free access to healthcare.

Fortunately, in March, after a lot of meetings with the White House and Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma, we were able to roll back a particularly frustrating regulation preventing the use of telemedicine by Medicare enrollees.

Provisions I supported as part of the CARES Act further expanded access to telemedicine by removing even more of that redtape and providing funding for reimbursement to frontline healthcare providers.

Of course, access to telehealth and access to high-speed internet go hand in hand. You can't really have one without the other.

This week, I learned that the FCC, as a result of the recent Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction, has now made some great steps, and Tennessee is going to receive about $150 million to help close the digital divide over the next decade. These new connections will be a game changer for rural and underserved communities. Not only will they open up access to telehealth, distance learning, and remote work opportunities, they will open up the local economy and encourage growth and outside investment because these dollars are targeted to unserved areas.

This award, coupled with CARES Act funding put to work earlier this year, will help us build on our prepandemic work on behalf of rural and unserved Americans.

The Internet Exchange Act, a bipartisan bill I sponsored to provide grant funding for broadband infrastructure, recently reported out of our Commerce Committee.

The pieces are, indeed, falling into place, and, hopefully, we can keep the momentum going and finally get this job done: closing the digital divide, providing everyone with access to high-speed internet and allowing communities that have been cut off from economic development, from telehealth, from remote learning to enhanced law enforcement--allowing them to benefit.

It is not just a matter of connectivity or convenience. It is an investment in a better quality of life for all Americans who call the rural parts of this country home.