We’re a month in with a newly elected Congress. President Joe Biden’s team has been in charge for only two weeks. Already, the president’s call for unity is being tested by those in both parties.
The president has sent his $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package to House and Senate leaders. Democrats hold the majority in both bodies and they have started the legislative work to muscle it forward. Democratic leaders have, sadly, already announced their readiness to proceed with only Democratic votes. But a group of 10 Republican senators, including Utah’s Mitt Romney, are asking Biden to seize the opportunity for a bipartisan compromise — one which they say will pass the Senate with Democratic and Republican votes. What Biden and Republicans decide may provide our first breakthrough in a dysfunctional Washington on our new president’s watch.
I’m with Romney on this one. Like him, I supported the $915 billion Consolidated Appropriations/Response and Relief Act in December. It wasn’t a perfect bill, but it was past time for Congress to act. Its passage meant that the five major legislative actions taken in 2020 on COVID-19 were bipartisan. In total last year, Republicans and Democrats provided relief in the shape of small-business loans, enhanced unemployment benefits, health spending on vaccines and Medicaid support to the states, as well as $458 billion in direct payments — checks to struggling families, children, senior citizens and veterans.
All of this was urgently needed to keep the health care system, hard-working families and small businesses afloat, at a time when our health and our economy was attacked by a highly contagious, sometimes deadly virus. Many business, health and community leaders welcomed these steps, but at the same time warned that without implementing a robust vaccination program, health outcomes and consumer confidence would suffer.
Utah began rolling out the new Pfizer and Moderna vaccines in December, as soon as government shipments arrived. We have seen how challenging the vaccination effort has been in many states, even as more contagious variants of the COVID-19 virus cause more infections and hospitalizations. It’s a race against a foe that cares nothing about politics but will have the upper hand unless we stop fighting each other and focus on combating this disease.
Like Sens. Mitt Romney, Susan Collins and the other Republicans, I believe there’s common ground where all sides can agree. Their proposal includes funding for a national vaccine program in partnership with the states, tribes and territories. It includes money for massive expansion of testing, personal protective equipment for first responders, doctors and dentists, and a Provider Relief Fund, with 20% set aside for rural hospitals. It provides an additional $300 a week in unemployment through June 30 for all states, and money to assist states with the hardware and software upgrades needed to get that relief to the unemployed in a timely way.
As with all negotiations, we can’t know what’s possible unless different sides meet and put their cards on the table. During last summer and fall, I watched with frustration as House Democrats, and an indifferent and callous President Donald Trump, refused to engage or compromise. I’m hopeful that if Biden greets Romney and the others with an open door and an open mind, a final package that gives our country what it needs — even if it’s not everything both sides want — can swiftly pass and be signed into law.
Ben McAdams formerly represented Utah’s 4th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.