Sen. John Cornyn joined the vast majority of his fellow senators in voting to approve an economic relief bill estimated to be worth some $100 billion. The bill provides for paid sick leave, enhanced food security funding and ensures that no American will pay for coronavirus testing.
It’s the second such economic aid Congress has passed since the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19 has begun to spread across the country. The first, an $8.3 billion emergency spending bill aimed at funding testing and vaccine research, was passed by an overwhelming majority in both legislative chambers at the beginning of March.
The bill approved by the Senate Wednesday also received large bipartisan support in both chambers.
The legislation targets three main spending concerns: expanding paid sick leave, as well as unemployment insurance benefits for those who lose their jobs from illness or from business closures sparked by the virus; the cost of coronavirus testing; and funding for food security programs.
“(The bill) ensures that no Texan will have to pay for testing. It will also provide for 14 days of paid sick leave for Texas workers to cover their diagnosis, quarantine or care for dependents. And it expands the Family Leave Act on a temporary basis to provide up to 12 weeks of paid leave,” Cornyn said.
“It also makes sure that our food banks and other safety net institutions like that have additional food for distribution to people who need it,” he said, adding that funds will also go toward providing school lunches and home delivery of meals for the elderly.
But, as more states enact emergency measures to shut down social events, businesses and schools, sending the American economy into a tailspin of uncertainty as they try to slow the virus’ spread, the longtime Texas Republican doesn’t want people to refer to the bill as an economic bailout.
“I wouldn’t consider this to be a stimulus package, I consider this to be a lifeline to these industries that are systemically important to our economy and who have been pounded through no fault of their own,” Cornyn said during a conference call with reporters Wednesday morning, ahead of the vote.
“This isn’t like bailing out banks that mishandled their own affairs and melted down the economy (in 2008),” he said.
Cornyn also echoed sentiments expressed by President Donald Trump earlier this week, who referred to himself as a wartime president as the nation’s battle against the fast-spreading virus wages on. “I think it’s time for the country — I think we already are on a war footing and we’ve got to beat this virus,” the senator said when asked what concerns he has about how the government’s emergency spending in response to the pandemic — which is estimated to run into the trillions of dollars — will add to the federal deficit and debt.
“I think that as a fiscal conservative, I have long been concerned by deficits and debt, but I don’t think that is a discussion we should be having when we’re in a national emergency,” Cornyn said.
Under the terms of the legislation, private sector employers will be required to provide two weeks of paid sick leave. Employees will be paid their regular daily wage rate, up to $511 per day, or two-thirds of their wage rate if they must miss work in order to care for a qualified dependent, according to a synopsis of the bill released by the McAllen Chamber of Commerce Wednesday.
The sick leave allowance is in addition to whatever sick leave time an employee already has available.
In regards to unemployment insurance, the new guarantees waive work search requirements, in part, because beneficiaries will be presumed to be planning to return to their jobs once the national crisis is over.
The new paid leave requirements apply only to companies with between 50 and 500 employees, making big box retailers exempt.
Asked if the bill’s employee protections go far enough, Cornyn said no, adding that the Senate is committed to passing additional legislation as early as this week. “No, it doesn’t go far enough, and that would be the main purpose of the third bill that we are taking up and we will pass, I would say, by the end of this week or early next week,” Cornyn said.
That bill is expected to provide billions of dollars in relief to the airline industry, which has told Congress it will collapse before the end of the year without help.
Nor would Cornyn rule out the possibility of passing legislation that would deliver checks straight to Americans, as has been suggested by Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.
On Tuesday, Mnuchin warned that U.S. unemployment could rise to 20% with tens of millions of Americans out of work at a rate not seen since the Great Depression. He urged lawmakers to consider a $1 trillion economic stimulus package in hopes of averting that scenario.
But beyond the economic relief Wednesday’s bill, and the third bill currently under consideration by lawmakers provides, the new legislation still leaves gaps in the nation’s response to public health concerns.
Though Wednesday’s legislation ensures that ever American who is tested for COVID-19 will be able to do so at no cost, it does not guarantee that every American can or will be tested.
Thus far, the nation’s capacity to test people has been bottlenecked by the limited supply of test kits. Since the pandemic began, Texas has only been able to test several dozen people per week. Gov. Greg Abbott has this week made assurances that Texas’ capacity will soon expand to as many as 20,000 tests per week.
By contrast, South Korea, which announced its first reported case of coronavirus on the same day as the U.S. — Jan. 20 — quickly began testing up to 10,000 people per day.
Cornyn assured that enough tests would soon be available to test people who meet certain criteria outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including people who are showing symptoms, have traveled to an affected area, and those with underlying conditions.
But testing for people who are not showing symptoms has proved far more difficult, and in some cases, impossible, to obtain. “It doesn’t strike me as a good use of resources to test people who are not symptomatic,” Cornyn said.
“Focusing on the people that are particularly vulnerable … if we’re going to do asymptomatic testing, I would limit it to those vulnerable populations right now,” he said.