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Thune: Coronavirus needs to be dealt with before giving the ‘all clear’

The economic relief bill the Senate is debating would be among the most expensive pieces of legislation in U.S. history. Senate Majority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., joins Judy Woodruff to discuss which provisions are still being negotiated and why, unlike President Trump, he believes government should prioritize health concerns over economic ones in the national fight against coronavirus.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We return now to our top story and the economic aid bill on Capitol Hill.

    The Senate majority whip, Senator John Thune of South Dakota, is the second-highest ranking Republican in the Senate, and he joins us now from Capitol Hill.

    Senator Thune, thank you very much for being with us.

    So, tell us, where do these negotiations stand?

  • Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.:

    Well, good evening, Judy.

    They are still in the final stages. We have been saying this now for some time, but I really am hopeful that we're driving to a conclusion here. They're still debating a couple of the issues that are not totally resolved yet.

    But, you know, I'm hoping they can wrap it up tonight. There's a possibility, I suppose, still that we could vote this evening, but one way or the other, we need to get this done as soon as possible, and I think we're getting a lot closer, but it's unfortunate that we're several days into this.

    This, in my view, at least, should have been done a few days ago.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I mean, we have been hearing they're close now for a number of hours, since yesterday. What can you say about what the holdup is?

  • Sen. John Thune:

    I think that there are several issues that have been — that are still being negotiated.

    And one has to do with the fund that would be available for businesses to get access to loan capital to help provide liquidity for their businesses and what kind of conditions should be imposed there.

    And I think there's pretty much broad agreement on that. There are — the Democrats have asked for grant funding for the airlines, and that's something that a lot of Republicans have issues with, but it's something that I think is being debated and negotiated. How do we keep the airlines in business?

    We have advocated that be done through loans. There may be some combination of that being debated, but that's being resolved right now. There is also a question of how you get the dollars out to state and local governments. And there's differences about what the numbers ought to be, and I think, in some respects, on the policy.

    But these are things that shouldn't take that long. And I think hospital numbers, it sounds like, have been fairly well-resolved, but there, again, we have had those numbers pretty well in hand now for several days.

    The Democrats have added, you know, additional items for consideration and discussion for several days now. And that's something that we have tried to fight off. Anything that's not specifically related to this emergency, we can debate another day.

    But they keep bringing new issues into the discussion.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But you are confident it's going to come tonight, or not?

  • Sen. John Thune:

    I am not confident that it's going to come tonight for sure. I think it's a possibility. But there's still a lot of work that has to be done.

    The text isn't final. When it is, it's — you have got to file. You have got to get it out there, distribute it to everybody, so they have an opportunity to review it. I think most people are familiar now with the major elements of this bill.

    So, it's not like — there have been a few changes and tweaks here and there. But I think, for the most part, everybody knows what's in it. But they're going to — people are going to want to have an opportunity to look at it, to discuss it a little bit, make sure they're comfortable with it before the vote.

    And then we have got to execute on the floor how we actually get it done. So, there are some steps ahead of us yet. I would say doubtful that it gets done this evening, but you never know around here, and I think it's important that we get it done as soon as possible.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Senator, different subject, and that is getting a lot of attention.

    President Trump has been saying for the last couple of days that he thinks it's very important that the country get back, as much as possible, to business as usual, and that — and he's talked about early April, Easter. He's thrown out other dates.

    And you know that this goes against the guidance of most of the scientists, medical experts out there who know something about this virus. They are saying that this is a dangerous thing to try to do it any sooner than is absolutely safe.

    What is your view of this?

  • Sen. John Thune:

    I think that you have to listen to the medical experts on an issue like this.

    You know, we — and that's got to be driven by data, science, evidence. I know that we're tracking every day the numbers in South Dakota, where they are, whether there's been community spread, you know, what the likelihood is that we're going to be dealing with significant issues in our hospitals in the near distant future.

    And so those are all questions, I think, that you are asking when you're looking at, when is it going to be safe to go outside again? And I think, for right now, we need to consult with and listen to the medical professionals, the health care experts out there who have been following this, tracking it, looking at that data, coming to conclusions, analyzing every aspect of it.

    But we certainly don't want to, obviously, put anybody in peril or at risk, until, you know, I think we need to get this thing completely dealt with before we declare it's all clear.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, I'm asking because the president sounds like it's a priority for him.

    And yet, I mean, just late this afternoon, and just minutes ago, I saw that Deborah Birx — Dr. Deborah Birx, who is the coordinator of the White House task Force on Coronavirus, is saying anybody who has been in New York City needs to self-quarantine for the next 14 days.

    There's still serious concerns about spread. So my question to you, is this a priority right now, business over — over health and life?

  • Sen. John Thune:

    Well, I think you always — you always err on protecting life.

    And, you know, these are — obviously, again, people are going to — people come to different interpretations about the data.

    But I can tell you, for example, that a state like South Dakota, what we're looking at is a very different situation than what they have in New York, simply because of the population base and the number of people who have come in from other places around the world who are carrying the virus.

    And so we're going to make decisions probably a little bit different for our state than maybe they will in the state of New York.

    But, generally speaking, Dr. Birx, Dr. Fauci, and the medical experts in my state of South Dakota are the ones who should be giving the advice. And I think that political leaders need to be listening very carefully to that advice, because I think it comes with a great deal of study of the evidence, the data, and the science that should inform all our decisions about how we approach this going forward.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes, there seems to be a lot of concern about spread, even if, as you say, South Dakota is different from New York City. People do move around.

  • Sen. John Thune:

    That's right. There is a lot of spread. And that's the thing you have to watch out for.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Senator John Thune, we thank you very much.

  • Sen. John Thune:

    Thanks, Judy.

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