Utah Sen. Mitt Romney expects a $908 million pandemic relief bill that he’s pushing to pass by the end of the month, perhaps in time to provide some needed Christmas cheer to Utah businesses facing tough times and the unemployed, who would receive an extra $300 per week.
Despite some sticking points, he thinks it is highly unlikely that Congress won’t pass something.
“I can’t imagine senators or congresspeople are going home and celebrating Christmas knowing that people who are unemployed aren’t getting an unemployment check,” he said.
“I think it’s critical that we get this funding out for those that are unemployed, but also for small businesses. Restaurants, beauty salons, exercise facilities — they’re in real trouble and are going to be shutting down increasingly if we don’t get additional funding to them.”
The package the group is pushing contains $14 billion to assist states in distributing a vaccine — plus such things as funding $300 each week in extra federal unemployment benefits, $288 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses; and $45 billion in aid for airlines and transit.
Utah has an unemployment rate of 4.1%, one of the lowest in the nation, but there are still 7,600 people on extended benefits set to expire shortly after Christmas if Congress doesn’t act. The state is also the home of a Delta Airlines hub and has seen airline workers furloughed or laid off. And tens of thousands of companies and organizations in Utah, including The Salt Lake Tribune, received a paycheck protection payment earlier this year.
Romney said the group pushing the relief bill is working on the details throughout the weekend. He met earlier in the week with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to explain the plan.
He said the greatest conflict comes on two points: Democrats are pushing for more relief to state governments, which many Republicans oppose as a bailout to some wasteful places; and a GOP push for a temporary liability shield to prevent coronavirus-related lawsuits against companies, a measure many Democrats strongly oppose.
“I think there’s sort of two scenarios,” Romney said. “One is we pass our bill in total. The other is that [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell pass most of our bill, but they leave to the side state funding and liability” and possibly address those next year.
“I do think that we’re likely this year to get the major portions of our bill passed,” he said. “That includes unemployment insurance extension; the PPP program for small businesses; help for hospitals, particularly rural hospitals; financing for broadband; and help for tribes.”
He said a key part of the bill is $14 billion to help states distribute vaccines for COVID-19 as they become available.
“The federal government doesn’t need more money to get the vaccine to the states. But we believe the states need funding to actually have people who can give the inoculations” and to “provide super-cold storage facilities” required for the vaccines, the senator said.
Despite some early missteps by states like Utah in fighting the coronavirus — such as awarding questionable no-bid contracts or buying unproven drugs — Romney expresses confidence in states being able to properly do their part to distribute vaccines.
“I think the good news is that the states have indicated where they want the vaccine to be sent, and they are, by and large, to stores like Walgreens and CVS, as well as to hospitals. So, it’s not being received, if you will, at a state warehouse,” he said, and goes directly to where injections will be provided.
Momentum for the bill has been building. Pelosi and McConnell have discussed it, and expressed hopes for a relief package soon. Other members have also joined in support of it — or at least major portions of it. He expects it to pass before the year ends.
He said even if the bill passes, this holiday season will be tough.
“I’m looking forward to people being able to celebrate a merry Christmas. I’m afraid a lot of us are going to be looking at grandkids on Zoom,” he said. “This is the last Christmas we’re going to have to do this if we get this right.”