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Republican Congressman On The Stalled Pandemic Relief Package


Gridlock - it is one of the more diplomatic words we could use to describe what is happening with efforts to pass a relief package for millions of Americans living through the financial pain brought on by the pandemic. It's now been more than six months since Congress passed an economic rescue package meant to keep businesses and individuals afloat. And now, less than a month before Election Day, talks over a new one have fallen apart. South Dakota Republican Congressman Dusty Johnson is a member of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus. He joins us now to talk about this.

Welcome, congressman.

DUSTY JOHNSON: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: So you all have got a heck of a problem to solve here. I mean, how is it that in an election year, a time when any member of Congress would love to bring money home, you all can't find any kind of agreement?

JOHNSON: Well, and it is just baffling because the first four major COVID-19 packages passed along overwhelmingly bipartisan lines. It was 97-0 in the Senate for the CARES Act. And I would submit that when Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders are voting the same way on something, we're in unusual times. But you're absolutely right...

KELLY: So what happened? Where did that bipartisanship go?

JOHNSON: Well, unfortunately, I think as we entered the late spring, early summer, everything became partisan about COVID-19. That's unfortunate. And frankly, D.C. just needs to get over itself. I mean, the reality is - I'm not for some massive, bloated package, but there is absolutely a need for a targeted, focused package. Congress does not have the luxury of inaction.

KELLY: Is there anybody on Capitol Hill who does not think coronavirus relief is needed and urgently?

JOHNSON: Well, I think we're - we are arguing about the size and scope, and I think that's legitimate for Congress to do. The problem is it's taken us too long to really get down to brass tacks. And frankly, that's why 25 Democrats and 25 Republicans came together, the Problem Solvers Caucus. And we a few weeks ago introduced a compromise, consensus, common ground package that within 24 hours of us unveiling it, it was endorsed by the White House and The New York Times and The Washington Post. And I just don't understand why we can't get to yes.

KELLY: Yeah. We spoke to one of your Democratic counterparts in the Problem Solvers Caucus in another part of the program tonight, Abby Spanberger. And she was making the case that the negotiations have almost been approached in the reverse order than they should be, that you all have been talking about how much, you know, what the ultimate price tag should be. And you should be talking about, well, what programs do we need? And then let's figure out how we pay for it. Do you agree?

JOHNSON: Absolutely. And everybody gets so hung up on the number because the number, whether it's 3 trillion or 1 trillion, determines which party won the negotiations. And I got to be honest with you, I mean, one of the most frustrating things about Washington, D.C., for me at least, is we get bogged down into what is good for Republicans or what is good for Democrats as opposed to, what is good for the United States of America?

KELLY: You mentioned that you all had come up with a compromise that you were hopeful about, that the White House, among other parties, had backed it. Has the White House been a constructive partner in these negotiations?

JOHNSON: Yeah. I mean, for the six weeks while we were meeting daily as a bipartisan group - and we had liberals and conservatives and moderates - I mean, we had a pretty good cross-section of Congress in that room. Yes. I mean, the White House was a productive partner.

KELLY: Although this week, President Trump pulled the rug out from under the negotiations, said, stop. I don't want any Republicans to move forward with this. Let's wait till after the election.

JOHNSON: Well, I think that was a bit of a surprise. And I think the president has, you know, recalibrated his remarks. And so far as yesterday he mentioned, yeah, we really do need to do some direct stimulus to American families. Yeah, we really do need to do something for the airlines. I don't know that we're quite as far apart as some people fear.

KELLY: All right. Well, in the few seconds we have left, where are you on a scale of one to 10 that something might get done before the election?

JOHNSON: Oh, I'm probably only about a three or four. I am hopeful that the better angels of Congress will come to the fore. Winston Churchill said, you can always count on the Americans to do the right thing after they've exhausted all other options. We're getting pretty close to that.

KELLY: Dusty Johnson, Republican congressman from South Dakota. Thank you very much for your time today.

JOHNSON: Thank you, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.