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The issue of whether to provide states and cities with additional federal funding is one of many challenges confronting Congress during the coronavirus pandemic. South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss that question, the safety precautions the Senate is taking amid COVID-19 and “broad support” for the Paycheck Protection Program.
For a front-row look at the tough decisions Congress is making on this and other issues, we're joined now by the second-highest ranking Republican in the Senate.
He's Majority Whip John Thune of South Dakota.
Senator Thune, thank you very much for talking with us.
There is so much on the plate of you and the — and other members of the Senate, but I want to ask you quickly about timing.
If this aid for small businesses, the so called Paycheck Protection Program, were to run out of money in coming days, would the Senate, would the Congress be able act to do something about it?
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.:
I think so, Judy.
I think that there's broad support on both sides, Republicans and Democrats, for that program. It's been very successful and obviously heavily subscribed, to the tune of over now 650 billion or more dollars.
And so our decision, I guess, now, will be whether now we can plus-up that account, or whether perhaps we will need to extend the time period for those loans, because we are going to get through this — we're burn through probably the eight weeks here pretty fast.
If the economy isn't up and running again, there are going to be some hard questions about, what do we do next?
And so, right now, we're in the process of evaluating exactly how fast the money that's going out the door is being used up, and then trying to come to some conclusions about what to do next and whether or not there ought to be another infusion of funding into the PPP Program, which, as I said, has been, by all accounts, very successful.
Well, one of the main debates, as we have just been hearing and we have referred to, is over help for state and local governments. As you know very well, these are folks who are on the front lines of fighting this pandemic. They are firefighters. They are police.
We just heard from a paramedic supervisor in the town of Greenburgh, New York. He said he voted for President Trump, but he said, right now, we're in a situation where we may have to lay people off.
Governors, mayors are saying they're in urgent need of help. Senate Majority Leader McConnell, though, has said this is something that he doesn't see as a priority, and other Republicans disagree with him.
Where do you come down?
Sen. John Thune:
I think there are a couple of things about that.
First off, there's $150 billion that is made available to state and local governments. Some are arguing, obviously, that that's not enough. But I think most of us are of the view that, of those dollars — and when they were allocated, they had to be used for something that was specifically COVID-related, costs only related to the virus.
The Treasury in the last few days has opened up and broadened significantly the definition of what that is. And so those firefighters, police, people who are on unemployment insurance, even housing assistance now could qualify under the Treasury's definition.
So, the dollars that are out there are being opened up. I think most of our members would rather give states and local governments flexibility on how the current dollars are used, before adding another trillion dollars to that, which is something that some of the Democrats are advocating.
But we want to see what's working, what's not working, what the need is, and how the money that we have already appropriated is being used, and whether it's not — whether or not it's being effective.
So, it sounds like you're saying there may be limit on what more can be done.
Do you see liability protection for businesses ending up as part of some kind of compromise there? That's something that Leader McConnell's also talked about.
And I think that there is an argument to be made, because we're already seeing reporting about lawyers lining up and filing lawsuits. And there's tremendous amount of vulnerability out there. You have got health care providers. You have got grocers, people who are in some of these critical industries that could be subject to lawsuits.
And, as we start to climb out of this, and the recovery gets going, we want to make sure that we don't step on that recovery by having just the cycle of endless litigation that makes it almost impossible for businesses to keep up with the cost and, in many cases, having to declare bankruptcy.
We don't want to see that outcome. And so some sort of liability protection, if people are doing things the right way, if they're following the CDC protocols, they shouldn't be subject to all these sort of frivolous lawsuits.
And I think that kind of protection makes sense.
Let me ask you about your state of South Dakota, where the governor has not issued a stay-at-home order.
Right now, businesses, public facilities starting to reopen, and yet we are learning that the coronavirus, while it may be flattening the curve in urban parts of the country, is continuing to grow in rural parts of the country.
How concerned are you that you may have a sleeper problem in South Dakota?
Well, wary and concerned, obviously, because we expect at some point that this is going to — it's going to come out into some of the more rural areas.
It's been confined, as you pointed out, so far at least, to some of the more populated areas of the country. And even in South Dakota, Sioux Falls, our largest city, has been where 75, 80 percent of the cases have been so far.
But as that starts to sort of break out into smaller communities and other communities across our state, I think it's something that we have to keep an eye on. And we have to make sure that the social distancing practices, the guidelines continue to be adhered to.
Things are opening up a little bit, but, again, with — I think, with a lot of those types of safeguards being put in place. And I think every state governor, every community, they're going to have to be working together, looking at the data, listening to the health experts, and making sure that they're doing everything that they — everything they can to protect life as they start to open up a little bit and get the economy back on track.
Finally, Senator, do you think it's a good idea for the Senate — is it safe for the Senate to be in session?
As you know, the congressional physician advised the House not to come back. Right now, the D.C. area is considered a place where COVID-19 is still — we're still seeing more cases. Members of the Senate and staff, support staff, have had to travel back to Washington.
It — how do you see this?
I think that — and, by the way, I think the House is coming in next week.
But we listen very carefully to the doctor for — the attending physician for the Senate, as well as to those who are responsible for governing this place. And they have been — a lot of precautions that have been put into place.
We are social distancing. When we vote in the Senate, we have extended the time for the vote. We have asked people to come into the backdoor to cast their vote, and not congregate down in the well, like typically we do.
Our meetings are being conducted largely — I was at a hearing this afternoon, Commerce Committee hearing, on the impact of COVID on the aviation industry, and everybody is seated six feet apart.
So, the guidelines are being practiced here. And I just think there are things that we need to be doing.
I mean, we are an essential industry for the American people. And I think they expect us to be taking care and doing everything we can to get them through this crisis.
Senator John Thune, thank you very much.
Good to be with you.
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