Schumer Floor Remarks On Immediate Need To Pass Legislation To Address Coronavirus Outbreak And Impact On Health Of Americans And Economy

March 18, 2020

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer today spoke on the Senate floor, urging the Senate to immediately pass the House coronavirus bill and pass additional legislation to address the coronavirus outbreak and its impact on Americans’ health and the economy. Below are Senator Schumer’s remarks, which can also be viewed here:

The coronavirus pandemic continues to test our nation in new and difficult ways. There is now a confirmed case of the coronavirus in all fifty states and the District of Columbia. Our public health system was understaffed and under-resourced and, without intervention, could soon become overwhelmed. Even as the market shifts from day to day, the coronavirus is slowing our economy to a near-standstill and we are almost certainly anticipating a recession.

You go to the streets of many cities, towns and villages—they're empty. Schools are closed in large portions of the country and businesses are struggling not to lay off workers because they don't have customers, they don't have clients, they don't have income. So there's a great urgency here, and there are really two separate and simultaneous emergencies: one in our health care system and another in the economy. We have to deal with both, and if we don't solve the one in our health care, the economy will continue to get bad no matter what we do for it.

Less tangible than those two emergencies but still very real is the impact this virus is having on American society. My home city of New York is effectively on lockdown. You can go to a place like Times Square, subway stations, and see nobody—actually nobody—there. Americans are being asked, rightly, not to gather in groups of 10 or more: not to go out to dinner, or to a bar, or to their church or places of worship.

I have lived through 9/11. It occurred in my city. I know people who were lost. I lived through the days of the financial crisis of 2008, and other moments of national urgency. But there is something much worse about the crisis we now face. I have never sensed a greater sense of uncertainty, a greater fear of the future, of the unknown. We don’t know how long this crisis will last. You don’t even know if you have contracted the virus right away, or maybe your spouse, maybe your child, maybe your parent, maybe your friend.

And then there is a much greater sense of isolation, a problem for which there is no cure. I miss meeting and talking to my constituents. They're our lifeblood. That is not just happening to us here in the Senate. It's happening across America: friends who used to get together, families that had gatherings, different social activities are gone. Book clubs, card games—the fabric and sinew of our lives as human beings –has been put on hold, and nobody knows for how long.

By necessity, the American people are now sacrificing their normal lives and daily routines. And maybe worst of all, sacrificing a sense of community because we all, each individually and together as a country, must fight this awful virus.

And unfortunately, we're only just beginning to see the necessary seriousness and mobilization of resources from the federal government. Sadly, unfortunately, and with awful consequences, this administration took too long to wake up to this global crisis—wasting precious weeks downplaying the severity of the coronavirus that could have been spent in earnest preparation, building our testing capacity. As a result, the United States continues to lag behind other countries in the number and percentage of the population we are testing.

Stories of Americans who feel sick and are showing symptoms but are unable to access a coronavirus test appear every day in every single newspaper. Warnings of a potential shortage of masks, hospital beds, and ventilators appear in the paper every single day.

In two weeks, the issue of ventilators and ICU beds will be like the issue of tests today. In other words, two, three weeks ago many of us were saying, get those tests out. A month ago people were saying it and now we're seeing the consequences: lockdowns because we can't test people; we don't know who has the virus and who doesn't.

Well, the same crisis will be occurring in a few weeks. Mark our words, unfortunately, it's true about ventilators and ICU beds. We're behind the eight ball on tests, and we’re soon going to be behind the eight ball on ICU beds and ventilators as more and more people get sick.

The administration didn’t pay attention to tests and now we are paying the price, even though many of us were hollering for weeks about the emerging issues with testing. The same problem is about to happen with ventilators. We know that in two weeks, the number of ventilators might become a massive problem—we must get ahead of it and get ahead of it now.

I am calling on President Trump to use his existing authority to help address widespread shortages of medical equipment, particularly ventilators, as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak.

I joined 27 of my colleagues in sending a letter to President Trump urging him to invoke the Defense Production Act of 1950 (DPA), which authorizes the president to strengthen domestic manufacturing capacity and supply in extraordinary circumstances. It's used in times of war, but we must mobilize as if it were a time of war when it comes to hospitals, beds, supplies, equipment. And the DPA, the Defense Production Act, allows the president to direct the production of private sector firms of critical manufactured goods to meet urgent national security needs. The president should do so immediately. Today, a report came out that the Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA are ready and willing to participate in the response process. The Army Corps could build temporary hospitals with beds, but they still haven't received instructions from the White House, from the administration. I thank the men and women willing to be on the front lines combatting this pandemic but this kind of inexcusable inaction is maddening, infuriating. And must be rectified. Lives are at stake.

Public health infrastructure is the top priority because if we can curb this virus, the economy will get better. We need to do things to help it, obviously. But if you ignore the public health crisis with the equipment and infrastructure and personnel that is needed in many more numbers than we've ever seen, the economy won't get better.

So the legislation passed by the House on Saturday – phase two of our coronavirus response – is a little bit of this and that must pass the Senate, today.

But, unfortunately, first we must dispose of a Republican amendment that would make a condition of the bill a requirement that the president to terminate military operations in Afghanistan. Yes, you heard me right: our Republican leadership has put on the floor an amendment that would make a condition of the bill a requirement that the president terminate military operations in Afghanistan. In a time of national emergency, this Republican amendment is ridiculous and a colossal waste of time. We probably could have voted on this bill a day or two ago, if not four, if not for the need to schedule this amendment.  I am eager—we are all eager—to dispatch this absurd Republican amendment and send this bill to the president. It allows, for instance, for free testing and treatment in coronavirus, very much needed. We can send this bill to the president and begin work on the next phase, phase three.

Now, as my colleagues know, Senate Democrats have already outlined several proposals for the next phase of legislation and the specifics have been made public.

The proposal has four main priorities: Public health capacity. Unemployment insurance. Paid sick leave. And priority treatment for labor in any bailout to industry. There are many things in this bill that are important, like no payment on student loans or mortgages, help with our mass transit systems—there are many things. And Democrats are going to fight for them in the next phase of response.

But the priorities I mentioned are key: public health capacity, unemployment insurance, and paid sick leave, and priority treatment for labor in any bailout to industry.

On the public health capacity, as I mentioned, we need masks. We need hospital beds. We need ventilators. We still need testing kits. And so Democrats are proposing a Marshall Plan for our public health infrastructure. The sooner we act on it, the better.

We also need to help in terms of health care system public transportation. Tens of thousands of health care workers in New York City, and many other cities, cannot get to their jobs if there's no public and mass transit.

But a Marshall Plan for our public health infrastructure is what is needed now, and it will prevent the situation from getting even worse and it will allow our ailing economy to begin to heal once we contain this virus.

Workers who get laid off or have their hours cut to almost nothing need expanded unemployment insurance. Period. Yesterday, the Secretary of the Treasury reportedly told Republican Senators that unemployment could hit 20%. Unemployment insurance and paid sick leave is a non-negotiable part of our response to the coronavirus.

Senators Murray and Gillibrand have a paid sick leave policy to meet this crisis. It should be added to this part of the legislation. I think they will ask for a unanimous consent request or offer an amendment to do so. If it's not included in this part, it should certainly be included in the next phase of legislation.

Now, there will be other items that we have to address down the road. Certain industries are struggling, airlines, hotels. But we must make sure that we prioritize public health and workers over corporate bailouts.

And if there is going to be discussion about a bailout, it must include worker priorities and worker protections. The airlines are very important for sure. They employ a lot of people. Many of us who fly back and forth to our states know the good people who work as the pilots, and the flight attendants, and the mechanics, and the clerks and the ticket-takers. They are good, fine people. We want to make sure they are protected. And one of the reasons, let’s not forget, that many airlines are so short on cash right now is that they have spent billions on stock buybacks. Money they had to send out when they should have been saving it for a rainy day, for their customers and workers. That issue should be addressed.

Now, a few of my Republican colleagues have proposed a one-time cash payment of $1,000. But my fellow Americans, this is not a time for small thinking. This is not a time for small measures. This is a time to be bold, to be aggressive.

A single $1,000 check would help someone pay their landlord in March but what happens after that? How do they pay their rent in April when their office or restaurant or store is still closed for business? How about May or June? The president suggests this recession could last through the summer.

$1,000 goes by pretty quickly if you’re unemployed. In contrast, expanded unemployment insurance—beefed up unemployment insurance—covers you for a much longer time and would provide a much bigger safety net.

This is a time to put tribalism aside and acknowledge that this recession, if we allow it, will do real harm to Americans up and down the income scale. And it will hurt Americans of all ages. So if we are going to provide direct payments, they need to be bigger, more frequent, and more targeted. Millionaires shouldn't get them.

Now, these are the kinds of issues that all parties are going to have to discuss. Democrats and Republicans, House and Senate, and the White House. The sooner we discuss them together, the quicker we'll be able to move forward.

But Leader McConnell announced yesterday that his plan to develop the next phase of legislation would be first for Senate Republicans to sit among themselves and then sit down with the administration and come up with their own proposal before presenting it to Senate Democrats, let alone House Democrats.

The process that Leader McConnell has outlined for phase-three legislation is too cumbersome, too partisan, and will take far too long given the urgency and need for cooperation. Secretary Mnuchin says he wants legislation passed by the end of the week. The McConnell process will not get us there.

Phase-three legislation should be the product of a five corners negotiation – House and Senate Leaders, majority and minority, plus the White House. That's the way that's worked the best, the quickest, the fairest in the past.  If all parties are in the room from the get-go, the final product will be guaranteed swift package. The process Leader McConnell outlines is far too reminiscent of the typical legislative process in the Congress, a process that far too often results in delay and gridlock.

We cannot afford that right now. Leader McConnell was right when he said that in times of national emergency, we must shed our partisanship and rise to the occasion. So let’s begin that way—Republicans and Democrats, House and Senate, Congress and the White House. The best way to advance phase three legislation is to have a five corners negotiation from the outset.