Tester, Daines discuss aid package that passed Senate


Last updated 3/26/2020 at 11:39am

Steve Daines

Montana's U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines each held conference calls Wednesday and discussed an update on the coronavirus economic relief package, which unanimously passed the Senate later Wednesday.

The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to vote on the $2 trillion aid package Friday.

Both senators said the bill will help Montana and the nation deal with the coronovirus pandemic, although Tester was critical of the process leading up to Wednesday's vote.

He said he has spent the last few weeks talking to Montana workers, small business owners, health care professionals, mayors and other community leaders about what they need to best elevate the effects of the coronavirus outbreak.

"So, when Majority Leader Mitch McConnell forced the Senate to vote on a Republican-only package last Sunday night, it was on a bill that failed really to make the investments they would need, that folks told me they need and they needed urgently," he said, "Instead, it was nearly a $2 trillion dollar check for the largest corporations and it ignored the urgent needs Montanans. It created a slush fund that would've allowed the Treasury Department to unilaterally pick which business got taxpayer dollars without any real guardrails prohibiting corporate bonuses or layoffs or stocks buybacks, not to mention the names of businesses receiving money would be kept a secret for up to six months."

He said any of that release is selling everyone a bill of goods, and that's just not Montana common sense.

When McConnell brought up the bill again Monday, Tester said, after Republicans said the bill needs to pass as is, "I said no, we need to get a better deal for Montana and a better deal for this country."

He added that over the last 72 hours the McConnell bill turned into what he thought was much better, and he hopes the bill will provide more assistance to families and resources to health care workers who are on the front lines.

"I believe, with the improvements we've made to this bill, it'll help provide the next phase of critical urgent relief that Montanans, small businesses and their employees, the hospitals, the communities that have been hit hardest hit desperately," he said. "What's in this bill ... it includes $10 billion dollars for (Small Business Administration) emergency grants up to $10,000 to provide immediate relief to small businesses, and it includes my legislation to cover six months of payments for small businesses with SBA loans, $17 billion to cover six months of payments for small businesses with existing SBA loans and a small business protection program to provide loans for small businesses nonprofits; veteran and self-employed individuals to cover eight weeks of payroll, mortgage interest, rent and utility cost that will be up to 100 percent forgivable for the Main Street businesses, providing that they fully maintain their workforce after this crisis ever."

It raises the maximum unemployment insurance payments to ensure laid off workers on average receive their full pay for four months, Tester said, and it establishes robust work protections attached to all federal loans for all businesses.

He said the bill also increases money for hospitals to $150 billion for the health care system, which includes a $100 billion for hospitals, a $55 billion increase from McConnell's bill, as well as billions for community health centers, nursing homes, mental health and replenishing medical stock supplies.

The bill now includes $10 billion for Indian Country and nearly $20 million for the Department of Veteran Affairs, and funding was also included for state and local governments and K-12 schools, he added.

"So I'm going to be aggressive in the coming days, weeks and months to make sure there's accountability for how this money is spent," Tester said, adding he will fight to prevent fraud and abuse and to hold the administration accountable.

He said because of the efforts to improve this legislation it is going to work better for Montana's small businesses, workers and communities during the fight of this pandemic.

"This legislation is far from perfect. It is not going to fix every problem, so I'm going to keep working with Montanans and my colleagues here in the U.S. Senate to deliver the support that Montanans need," he said. 

  Daines also said the bill will help Montanans.

"What this is about is getting help to Montanans who are suffering and need immediate relief both for their health as well as their pocketbooks due to the coronavirus outbreak," Daines said in his press conference Wednesday. "We truly are at a moment where we are having both a public health and an economic crisis. I have never seen a situation like this in my lifetime, and that's why we've been working so hard to make sure the voice of Montana and rural states were heard during these negotiations for this relief package that'll pass the Senate today."

He said that over the past several days he has been hearing from Montanans about what is going on in their communities and lives and from people who have lost their jobs.

The current unemployment claim count in Montana was approaching 15,000 people Wednesday, he added, with the claims based on those that have been submitted in the last eight days.

Daines said the bill includes $250 billion for unemployment insurance for the purpose to give relief to workers who have lost their jobs because of this pandemic.

This will be about $600 more a week than they would normally receive, he said.

"There's about $150 billion for state and local governments, in fact, it looks like Montana will receive about $1.25 billion," he said. "This will be significant, in fact 45 percent of that $1.25 billion has to go to local governments, so this will be a much needed boost for the state of Montana and for our local governments."

Daines added that for low and middle income individuals will receive a $1,200 in direct payments, $2,400 for couples plus $500 dollar per child.

Drugs are being researched for a vaccine for this virus, he said, adding that the cost of drugs will be waived when available and helps ensure access.

"I put dollars in this bill ... to ensure we've got the best minds and our best technologies focused, almost like a Manhattan Project, to get these drugs into the marketplace by August, September, October, to make sure we have immunities so we don't have another pandemic coming into the next flu season this fall," he said.

"When I think about what we are doing here, this is for Montanans. We are strong. We are in this together. We are going to get through this," he said.

Jon Tester


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