During a press call Tuesday, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) explained why he waited more than a month to acknowledge President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, and detailed a COVID-19 relief package he helped draft.
In 2016, Portman congratulated Donald Trump on winning the day after votes were cast. But this year, he’s dragged his feet on calling Biden the President-elect, citing Trump's right to pursue recounts and legal challenges – almost all of which were rejected by courts.
After Electoral College voters officially pushed Biden past 270 electoral votes on Monday, Portman issued a statement acknowledging Biden’s victory. He insists the system is working.
“I know not everyone agrees with that, believe me, I’m getting plenty of feedback from the other side on this, from you, but this is the process that I said ought to be respected," Portman said.
Portman says he’s focused now on passing a pair of COVID-19 relief bills before Congress adjourns. Those measures provide liability protections so customers can't sue business owners if they contract the coronavirus, and offer additional funding for local governments, small businesses and unemployed workers.
Liability protection has been a sticking point for months, and Portman described the proposal as a compromise position. Under the provisions, businesses and other entities will be shielded from lawsuits for a year, or until the end of the public health emergency, except in cases of "gross negligence."
“I hear from a lot of small businesses that they’re very nervous about, in some cases, even reopening until this issue is addressed in some way,” Portman says.
The same measure appropriates $160 billion for state and local governments, splitting the funding into three waves. The first $51 billion will be divvied up by population, and the remainder will be doled out by need.
The other piece of legislation focuses on small businesses and social services, and it comes with a much higher price tag: $748 billion. The largest part of that spending is another $300 billion for the popular Paycheck Protection Program. That initiative offers forgivable loans to small businesses that commit to keeping workers on their payroll.
Portman's proposal would also extend unemployment benefits for 16 weeks, and tack on $300 a week in federal assistance for job seekers.
“It keeps us from falling into a trap of despair at the end of this year with regard to unemployment assistance,” Portman says, “because if you don’t make changes to the law, then on the day after Christmas, a bunch of people lose their unemployment insurance.”
Neither of the measures Portman is backing will provide direct payments like the $1,200 checks that were sent out as part of the CARES Act in March.
Although the dollar figures Portman and other lawmakers contemplate are eye-popping, the $908 billion all-in price tag is less than half of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, and less than a third of the HEROES Act passed by the House in May. The Senate declined to take up the HEROES Act, even after the House whittled its spending down to same level as the CARES Act.
Portman worked on the legislative package with a bipartisan group of lawmakers. The plan’s backers are members that hew to the center, like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), but the proposal seems likely to draw support from Democrats.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) has already voiced support for an earlier version of the plan, but sees the effort as a first step.