Senator says a coronavirus vaccine will go first to those on a ‘priority list.’
Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin in a Wednesday virtual luncheon attacked Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, for waiting until the last minute to propose a Republican version of a new federal coronavirus relief package that has to be negotiated with House Democrats in less than ten days before Congress takes its August vacation.
Senate Republicans finally presented a counterproposal on Monday to a sweeping $3 trillion package House Democrats passed in May, and the new, stripped-down $1 trillion Republican offering is already bogged down by debate among McConnell’s fellow GOP members.
The last-minute maneuvers are taking place against a backdrop of still-high unemployment numbers, unemployment benefit backlogs, and an expiring $600 weekly unemployment payment boost that millions of Americans have relied upon for months.
“I have no earthly understanding why it took Mitch McConnell to the week prior to the cliff (the unemployment boost expiring) to come in and then with a proposal that doesn’t extend but radically changes it,” Baldwin said during the luncheon hosted by the Milwaukee Press Club and WisPolitics.
Baldwin also spoke about the need for a vaccine and praised the so-called Operation Warp Speed, which could see a vaccine available for a “priority list” of recipients by early next year. First recipients would likely be health care workers, essential workers, and people in high-risk populations.
She said that approach should have been taken to a federal coronavirus response at all levels, from providing personal protective equipment to ramping up testing, from the beginning of the pandemic.
“I’m so furious with the failure of leadership of President Trump and this administration,” said Baldwin, who is a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which is overseeing the program. “I think Warp Speed right now is one of the few things they’re getting right.”
Yet months of inaction from practically all other response angles have led the country to a precarious spot as Congress works to pass a second round of relief before the August recess.
The Republican plan — which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, called “pathetic” — would slash the weekly unemployment boost by two-thirds, reducing it to just $200. That will mean a massive earnings decrease for more than 200,000 unemployed Wisconsinites and could spell economic disaster in the form of another wave of job losses and a spike in evictions and foreclosures.
Republicans say $600 extra per week is too much because about two-thirds of people on unemployment made more with the boost than they did at their pre-pandemic job. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said Tuesday that Democrats are not “$600 or bust,” something Baldwin also alluded to during the virtual luncheon.
“I think we can have a negotiation about what level it should be,” Baldwin said. “I certainly support $600 but I don’t think that that is a line that’s been drawn, that we can’t negotiate a little bit around the dollar amount.”
She later added, “Our economy would be much worse if it weren’t for the supplemental pandemic assistance.”
The Economic Policy Institute estimates Wisconsin would lose an additional 65,000 jobs without the $600 boost, and the nation as a whole would lose nearly 5.1 million positions due to depressed economic activity.
Baldwin also took aim at the fact that the Republican bill sets aside no money for state and local governments to help fight the pandemic, and includes $70 billion for schools — much of it tied to resuming in-person classes — as opposed to $90 billion in Democrats’ plan.
“There’s a lot that is missing,” she said.