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Sen. John Thune on COVID relief: ‘this is a big, wasteful, bloated bill’

As the U.S. Senate moves toward floor debate on this next round of stimulus, we get the perspective of South Dakota Republican Sen. John Thune. He joins Judy Woodruff to discuss some of the components of the legislation and other debates in Congress, including unemployment insurance, state and local aid, and the federal minimum wage.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As the Senate moves toward floor debate on this next round of coronavirus stimulus, we get two views, starting with the chamber's number two Republican.

    He is Senator John Thune South Dakota.

    Senator Thune, thank you for joining us today.

    On this COVID relief bill, as you know, the sponsors say this is a much-needed boost for people who've been knocked flat by this pandemic, $1,400 direct payments to people in the lower- and middle-income levels. It would extend unemployment benefits, which are about to expire in 10 days. What is your take?

  • Sen. John Thune:

    Those are all things, I think, most of the — I shouldn't say — I wouldn't say all, but I think most Republicans would agree could and should be addressed in a coronavirus relief bill.

    I think what most Republicans are objecting to in this is, one, not being consulted at all. The Democrats are doing this basically one party only, trying to sort of ram it through under a procedure in the Senate that only requires 51 votes, as opposed to 60.

    We did five coronavirus relief bills last year when we were in the majority in the Senate all at the 60-vote threshold, bipartisan, under the regular order in the Senate. The Democrats have opted to do it this way.

    And I think that, when it comes to unemployment insurance, when it comes to — even to the direct checks, when it comes to funding for health care for vaccines, distribution, et cetera, there's a lot of bipartisan support for that. But this goes way past that.

    This is a big, wasteful, bloated bill. And we have tried to work with the Democrats to get them to come to the table and negotiate with Republicans on a more reasonable, targeted, and fiscally responsible approach, but so far to no avail.

    So, we're going to the floor. They're going to the floor with this. We're going to try and offer some amendments to make it better and improve it.

    But, in the end, my guess is, they will have the votes. And it comes down to the math.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, we know President Biden did meet with a group of Republicans. In fact, he met with Republicans before he met with Democrats to talk about this.

    But the other point Democrats are making, Senator, is that here we are, in just the beginning of March. The country is still — the economy is precarious. Something like more than half of Americans were living paycheck to paycheck even before this pandemic. And this kind of a boost is needed to help workers on the front lines, teachers and others who have literally been knocked flat.

  • John Thune:

    And I think there's a lot of sympathy for people who are unemployed. That's why both sides agree there should be an extension of unemployment insurance.

    I think the direct checks, the direct payments that have been talked about, there's bipartisan support for that, both Republicans and Democrats.

    I think where we run into disagreements, Judy, are on many of the other elements of the bill. Take, for example, $350 billion for state and local governments, which we're now finding out, year over year, cumulatively, all 50 states last year, had a revenue decrease of one-tenth of 1 percent. Hardly seems reasonable to ship $350 billion.

    And when they look at how that's distributed, it really goes to the big states. California gets $27 billion. New York, Illinois, the big states get the lion's share of that money. And you have got taxpayers in places like South Dakota and North Carolina and Georgia and other places around the country that essentially are writing checks to states which really aren't needed, if you look at the year-over-year revenue.

    There are specific places where maybe there's some targeted assistance that could be necessary. And we are for targeted. We are for fiscally responsible. What we're not for is just a shotgun approach to this that throws a lot of money out there at a time when every one of those dollars is borrowed, and when we're also worried about inflation and interest rate increases in the economy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, I do quickly want to ask you about minimum wage.

    As you know, by Senate rules, it was taken out of this bill. I'm also talking to Senator Bernie Sanders tonight. He wants to see the minimum wage, federal minimum wage raise to $15 an hour from seven and a quarter.

    You said in an interview a few days ago that you had earned $6 an hour when you were a teenager. Of course, it has been pointed out that would be $20 an hour in today's dollars.

    Have you had a chance to look more closely at the argument for increasing the federal minimum wage?

  • John Thune:

    Well, I have. And I pay a lot of attention to it.

    And, by the way, I did make $6 an hour after I'd worked at the place for five years. I started out at $1 an hour and worked my way up.

    But, that being said, I think that there is an argument. You want to help people get back on their feet. You want to help the economy create jobs.

    What I have suggested is that, in South Dakota, for example, we set our own. It's $9,45 an hour. And I don't — I think there are a lot of people in my state and probably a lot of people here, Republicans in the Senate, would be fine if it were like at $10. But you're talking about doubling — more than doubling it to $15 an hour.

    There are a lot of businesses in my state, in the travel industry, for example, which is one of the hardest-hit industries under the pandemic, that, at $15 an hour, are just going to go out of business.

    And I think that a much better, more responsible approach is to do what South Dakota has done and look at these things state by state. It's a very different economy on the East Coast and the West Coast than it is in the middle of the country. And I think flexibility is a — in this case, at least, makes a lot of sense.

    But there are — I mean, Bernie — Bernie is going to tell you it should be $15 and nothing else. I think there are a lot of Republicans and some Democrats who would like to see that come down a lot and might be persuaded at a number that's a little bit lower and more achievable.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Senator, what number would you like to see the federal minimum wage at?

  • John Thune:

    Well, I don't know that — I'm not probably the — necessarily the person to predict that.

    But we have several Republican senators who have their own proposals, and one of them, Tom Cotton and Mitt Romney, peg it at $10 an hour and then increase it for inflation. And I think there's some support among Democrats for something in that range.

    I think the reason that it couldn't be included in this bill, is, it got knocked out, because it wasn't germane to the underlying legislation. But there was also Democratic — Democrat opposition to it as well.

    I think people like — there are a couple of Democrats I know of who have real heartburn over raising it that amount and the impact it could have on the small businesses in their states.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Senator John Thune of South Dakota, thank you very much. We appreciate it.

  • John Thune:

    Good to be with you. Thanks, Judy.

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