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House passes Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package

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Overnight, the House of Representatives passed President Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package. The bill passed predominantly along party lines, with two Democrats voting against the plan. Congressman Earl Blumenauer, who represents Oregon's 3rd congressional district, spoke with Lana Zak about the impact the COVID-19 relief package will have on the country, and how it will help revitalize the nation's struggling restaurant industry.

Video Transcript

LANA ZAK: For more on President Biden's rescue plan, let's bring in Representative Earl Blumenauer. He represents Oregon's third congressional district. Representative, great to have you here. So the House passed President Biden's bill early Saturday morning. And as I mentioned, it passed almost entirely along party lines, except for two Democrats who voted against it. Why is this bill such a partisan issue? And how are you ultimately able to get it passed?

EARL BLUMENAUER: Well, we had tremendous contention amongst Democrats [AUDIO OUT]. But, you know, ironically, there is a lot of bipartisan support for this legislation. The president had Republican mayors, Republican governors. They know on the ground that this is desperately needed.

The people need to get this money in their pockets. They need the unemployment. They need the child tax credit. I would say relief for restaurants. There's a whole panoply of things that matters to people.

The Republicans have decided to take an ideological stance to just oppose it, misrepresent it, and run the old playbook that they had against Obama, objecting to everything. What we found is that during the American Recovery Act 10 years ago, actually, by making it too small and too short, it delayed the recovery and cost the federal government more money. We're not going to make that mistake. And I think, frankly, this is going to backfire on a number of Republicans.

LANA ZAK: Well, Congressman, I want to follow up with you on this thread. Because on the House floor, Minority Leader McCarthy called the bill, quote, "too liberal and too corrupt for the country." Are Democrats and Republicans seeing eye to eye on any parts of this proposal?

EARL BLUMENAUER: Well, there will be opportunities to come together. I mentioned the-- we're going to be working on infrastructure. Historically, infrastructure has not been intensely partisan. And if Republicans decide to work with us on that, we can move across party lines to be able to help rebuild and renew America.

I've worked for a year to try and have a rescue for restaurants. That was bipartisan legislation that had 50 Republicans and Democratic senators in the-- who were supporting the original area. There are elements here that people support. The problem is that they are looking through a partisan screen to try and score points in the aftermath of the trauma we've been going through. But I think as things settle down, people will recognize.

Senator Romney wants to have greater support for families and children. That's part and parcel of what we did. When we deal with the specifics, I think there are areas that the American public supports and that we can get behind.

LANA ZAK: And we have seen overwhelming public support-- not among elected officials, but among voters-- for the rescue plan. But one of the issues that continued to be contentious is the minimum wage hike up to $15 an hour. That caused two of your fellow Democrats to vote against this bill.

And we also know that the Senate has ruled that it's not going to be able to go forward including that provision. Was it a mistake on the part of Democratic leadership in the House to keep that in this bill? Or could you otherwise have gotten more Republicans on board if you had gone ahead and taken it out?

EARL BLUMENAUER: In the House, no. They are intransigent. They have a different worldview that we've seen. And it was important, I think, to send that signal to the American public that we're going to be on their side. We haven't raised the minimum wage for 10 years. It's been stuck, it has eroded, and there are people in desperate need of it. And state by state, voters have acted.

I think you're going to find that there are other initiatives that are available. Already, people are talking in the Senate about ways of crafting something that will achieve the same goal. Senator Ron Wyden, the chair of the Finance Committee, and Bernie Sanders, they're looking at dealing with tax elements that might reward people who deal with increasing the minimum wage.

There are a number of ways to go about it. The main thing is that the public supports it. There will be a price paid for people who are opposed to it. And we're patient.

This is something that we're committed to doing. It's long overdue. The public wants it, and people need it. And I don't think it was a mistake to put that marker down and move forward.

LANA ZAK: Well, let's talk about something that is included in the bill currently and is more likely to make it across the finish line once the Senate is done with it. And that's the restaurant relief proposal, which I know is particularly important to you. You've championed it over the last year.

That would provide $25 billion in grants to restaurants and bars critically impacted by the pandemic. How would your proposal be used to revitalize the industry? And are you at all concerned that it might not make it through the Senate?

- Well, I'm very optimistic that this will make it through the Senate. As I mentioned, we had bipartisan legislation in the last Congress. 50 senators supported, including high-profile Republicans like Lindsey Graham and Roger Wicker, as well as the Senate now Majority Leader.

What would happen is that it will provide up to $5 million for individual locations, but most of it will be much, much smaller. It will go through the Small Business Administration. We're setting aside resources for smaller restaurants that had less than $500,000 sale. For the first three weeks, they will prioritize money that goes to women-owned, minority, immigrant, that make sure that the smaller restaurants are not frozen out.

This is an opportunity to give direct grants to be able to help them stay alive. This is 11 million employees, 500,000 restaurants. We've already lost one in six. The direct grants will help them move forward. Six months, a year from now, as we return to normal, as long as they're in business, they'll be able to move on, and we don't need the program the same way. But they need the lifeline now, and I'm confident that the Senate will approve this.

LANA ZAK: I want to follow up with you on your point about one in six restaurants in the US have permanently closed since the start of the pandemic, because this actually accounts for nearly a quarter of US job losses during this time. One of my questions is really about bringing those jobs back. As you say, your proposal is intended to try and provide a lifeline to stop more restaurants and particularly those small businesses from closing. Does it provide enough to try and bring those jobs back though?

EARL BLUMENAUER: Well, this is the first round. I'm confident that people will see that it works, that we'll make a difference. We're not done with providing relief to the American people, and this fund could be replenished in the future. But in the short term, avoiding more shutdowns, keeping the supply chains-- there's a trillion-dollar supply chain that deals with local food, the people who supply linens, the whole range of things, that keeping this in tact is important for the recovery.

The restaurant industry is a very dynamic one. There is turnover in the best of times. But if we stabilize it, we allow people to get back to be able to have in-person dining, we keep the infrastructure in place that's so important to our neighborhoods, we'll be able to build back. It's critical that we don't lose more now, and it's critical that we don't have the supply chain be irrecoverably damage.

LANA ZAK: I know there's a lot of people watching to see what will come out of Congress. So Congressman Earl Blumenauer, thank you.

EARL BLUMENAUER: My pleasure. Thank you.