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Mr. THUNE. Mr. President, I am, like many of my colleagues, very pleased that we have reached an agreement on a final COVID relief package and none too soon.
Last week, we celebrated what will, hopefully, be a turning point in the COVID fight--the first coronavirus vaccinations. We need to build on that momentum and make sure that vaccine distribution goes swiftly and smoothly so that we can vaccinate as many Americans as possible as quickly as possible. The COVID relief package will help us achieve that goal by providing important funding for vaccine distribution. It will also provide critical support to Americans to help them weather the rest of the pandemic, including a second round of paycheck protection funding for the hardest hit small businesses, money to help schools reopen safely and operate so that our kids aren't left behind, and more money for coronavirus treatment and other frontline medical priorities.
I am very pleased that the final package includes my Paycheck Protection for Producers Act, which will help more farmers and ranchers benefit from the Paycheck Protection Program. The bill also includes funding to allow the Department of Agriculture to provide additional assistance to farmers and ranchers. Ag producers were dealing with a challenging agricultural economy even before the pandemic hit, and the coronavirus has only made things tougher. I strongly advocated for including additional funding for farmers and ranchers in this legislation, and I am very glad that the final bill includes this support.
The final package also explicitly makes biofuels, like ethanol and biodiesel, eligible for USDA assistance at the discretion of the Secretary of Agriculture. Biofuel producers have suffered from a drop in fuel demand during the pandemic, and I hope the Secretary will ensure that they are able to receive assistance, which will further help our ag economy recover.
I am very happy that the COVID relief package includes an extension of the Thune-Warner Employer Participation in Repayment Act. The Thune- Warner bill allows employers to make tax-free contributions to their employees' student loans of up to $5,250 per year. This is a win for employees, who get help in paying off their student loans, and it is a win for employers as they look to attract and retain talented workers. Our bill was included in the CARES Act--the major coronavirus relief legislation we passed in March--but it was scheduled to expire at the end of the year. Under the coronavirus relief package, however, our legislation will be extended for an additional 5 years.
The COVID relief package also includes Senator Cornyn's Small Business Expense Protection Act, which I cosponsored. This legislation will ensure that small businesses that qualify for forgiveness of their Paycheck Protection Program loans can still deduct their ordinary business expenses on their taxes.
The relief package also includes legislation I introduced this summer with Senator Enzi that will establish antifraud measures within the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program so that we can ensure that beneficiaries are truly eligible for the program.
We have addressed a lot of coronavirus priorities in this relief package, and I am very pleased that we are finally getting it out the door. Republicans spent months pushing for additional, targeted coronavirus relief, and I am glad the Democrats finally decided that they were ready to work with us in a bipartisan way to arrive at this legislation.
The Senate Democratic leader was just here, once again, attacking Republicans over their failure--the Democrats' failure--to work with us to get a coronavirus relief bill sooner. We brought up multiple times on the floor legislation that could have passed if there had been a little cooperation from the Democrats. He pointed out that this bill we are going to be voting on today looks nothing like the Republican bill, which isn't the case. There are a lot of similarities between the bill that we put on the floor in September and again in October--about $600 billion in targeted relief that addresses the most fundamental needs the American people need right now. One is an unemployment insurance extension for those who are unemployed. The very amount that is in the bill that we will vote on today was in the Republican bill that we brought to the floor in September and again in October and voted on here.
The vaccine money--the money that is out there to help with the vaccines that are going to be so effective in trying to get this pandemic under control--was also in the bill that was on the floor both in September and in October.
The relief for small businesses that have been hit hard by this pandemic and have seen their balance sheets and their income statements get depleted by its economic impact also would have been funded with additional Paycheck Protection Program relief in the bill that we brought before the Senate both in September and again in October. That very assistance is included in the legislation that we will vote on today.
Money for schools, as I mentioned earlier, to help them reopen safely--something that was in the legislation that we voted on in September, again in October--is in the legislation that we will vote on today.
The only things that are different, really--substantially different-- from what we brought up on the floor back then are the assistance checks that are included in this legislation. That is something that was a priority. It was a priority for Members on the Republican side; it was a priority for Members on the Democratic side; it was a priority for the White House, so it ended up being included in this and, hopefully, will provide some much needed relief to people across this country who have been struggling with their personal finances and their family finances through the pandemic.
So those are all things that we have discussed and debated previously, and I would point out that, contrary to the assertions made by the Democratic leader just now, there were numerous attempts to try and move this legislation previously.
Now, it is fair to say that the House of Representatives did send the Senate a $3.4 trillion package, which was bloated and included lots of nonpandemic, noncoronavirus relief-related items--things that were on their liberal wish list. That wasn't realistic, and they knew it. That was a campaign document designed to try and help them, at the time, win an election.
But I am glad they have decided to get down and negotiate in a serious way because the number that we are going to be passing today--a little under $1 trillion, about $900 billion--is very close to what Republicans put on the floor in September and again in October.
It is a far cry from the $3.4 trillion bloated bill that the Democrats sent over from the House and the Democrats here in the Senate tried to advance and suggested that that should be what the Senate should vote on.
We have said all along that we need to address this in a targeted way, a fiscally responsible way, a way that recognizes the most critical needs out there, both on the healthcare front and also on the economic front, and we have moved aggressively to address those needs not once, but twice.
Legislation, a real bill brought to the floor, which received a majority vote in the U.S. Senate--52 U.S. Senators in September and again in October voted here on the floor of the U.S. Senate to do the very things that I just mentioned--but it was blocked from even being considered by the Senate Democrats.
We all know here in the Senate it requires 60 votes to invoke cloture. It is a procedural motion to get on a bill. The Senate Democrats gave us no support to even get on the bill.
So, as a consequence, even though there was majority support--52 U.S. Senators voting in favor of getting on and debating the bill--because the Democrats blocked it, we didn't even have an opportunity to debate--not even to get on it, let alone offer amendments and have a discussion and a conversation and work on legislation. If they had objections to it or things they wanted to improve or things they wanted to make better, they would have had an opportunity to do that if we had simply been able to get on the bill.
So we are where we are today at this late hour in the year--December 21, Christmas week--doing this now because they didn't want to do it earlier, and some have publicly acknowledged that one of the reasons they didn't want to do it earlier is that there was a campaign underway, and they had hoped that there would be a new President, an opportunity to do it their way later.
But, nevertheless, we have before us now, finally, at long last, a piece of legislation that addresses the most critical needs that are out there, and it is very similar in many ways, in terms of the substance, the content, and the features of the bill and the overall pricetag, to what Republicans have brought on the floor of the U.S. Senate previously.
So I am glad that we are finally going to get this done, but I absolutely disagree with the statements that were made earlier by the Democratic leader, because they don't reflect reality. In fact, they don't reflect anything close to reality about what has been happening here in this Chamber over the past several months when it comes to trying to provide much needed relief to the American people who are suffering from this pandemic.
There are a couple of things that I would just mention briefly that aren't included in the bill, and I wish they were.
I have a bill called the Remote and Mobile Worker Relief Act, and I am sorry that was not included in the final bill.
This bipartisan legislation would have prevented unexpected tax bills and tax complications for medical professionals who traveled to other States to help during the pandemic and for Americans who worked from home to help slow the virus's spread.
It is unfortunate that opposition from a handful of States with aggressive taxation policies--like the Senate Democratic leader's home State of New York--has so far prevented legislation like mine from getting through Congress. But I will continue to fight for tax relief for remote and mobile workers
It has been a difficult year for our country. There are way too many virus infections, way too many hospitalizations, way too many people who have lost loved ones from this dreaded virus. It has affected people in so many ways--their health, their confidence, their economic standing and status, their mental health. There are just so many--so many--effects of this, and this winter is likely to be very challenging.
But the encouraging news is that there is light at the end of the tunnel. There is a vaccine out there that will get more widely out there, and thanks to the resources that we put into the first coronavirus bill--the CARES Act that passed last March--those vaccines have been moving forward at record speed--five times faster than any vaccine in history.
Light is at the end of the tunnel. The vaccines are coming. They are going to be proven to be very effective, and there is additional funding in this particular legislation that we will vote on today to make sure that it gets distributed as quickly as possible.
We are going to make it through this, and I look forward to sending the additional relief that is included in this legislation that we will move through the Senate today and put on the President's desk, where he can sign it into law. I look forward to seeing that additional relief get out to the American people.
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