Schumer Floor Remarks On The Need For The Senate To Focus On The Coronavirus Pandemic Including A Comprehensive National Testing Strategy

May 4, 2020

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer today spoke on the Senate floor, demanding that the Senate focus on aiding and overseeing coronavirus pandemic response efforts, including a comprehensive national testing strategy. Below are Senator Schumer’s remarks, which can also be viewed here:

Senate convenes a session this evening during a trying time for our nation. As we speak, millions of our citizens are respecting stay-at-home orders and doing their part to stop the spread of this pernicious disease. Millions are newly unemployed, dependent on the actions we take here in Congress to stave off financial disaster. More than 1 million Americans have tested positive for COVID-19. More than 67,000 lives have been lost.

My home state of New York has been hit the hardest. The loss of so many precious lives; the suffering of so many families, unable to comfort or even say goodbye to a loved one, has been extremely painful, enough to break your heart.

At the same time, while we are grieving, we are also inspired by the bravery of our doctors, nurses, health care workers, first responders, and other daily heroes—many of them immigrants—on the frontlines of this crisis. To them we owe an extraordinary debt of gratitude. It’s the same enormous thank you that I hear out the windows of my apartment and many in New York at 7:00 p.m., when we applaud them as they change shifts every night—an act that brings isolated New Yorkers together.

But more than that, this Congress, this Senate, must deliver the people of our country relief. We have come together on several occasions to pass historic legislation in this time of crisis. They passed 96 to nothing, which shows that this body can come together in a time of crisis, which should give Americans some hope and some solace.

But let me be very clear: our work is far from over.

The Republican Leader has called the Senate back into session, despite the fact that the District of Columbia appears to be reaching the peak phase of this public health emergency. Despite the risks we face by gathering here in the Capitol. Despite the risks faced by the security guards, and cafeteria workers, janitors, and the staff who operate the floor of the Senate. I want to take a moment to thank each and all of those Capitol Hill workers for being here today, for doing their jobs so that we may do ours.

But, if we are going to be here—if we are going to make these fine people come into work in these conditions—let the Senate at least conduct the nation’s business and focus like a laser on COVID-19.

At the moment, the Republican Leader has scheduled no significant COVID-related business for the floor of the Senate. Tonight, we will vote on a nomination to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Later this week, the Republican majority on the Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing for a manifestly unqualified, right-wing judicial nominee.

When the topic of COVID-related legislation has come up, Leader McConnell has drawn partisan lines in the sand. First, he suggested that states should go “bankrupt”—let them go “bankrupt.” He’s since walked that back. But then only a few days later, the Republican Leader vowed to block any bill that does not include legal immunity for big corporations that operate unsafely and put workers in harm’s way.

The Republican leader said that his red line in a future relief package is not a national testing program, it’s not more help for small businesses or housing assistance for families, it’s not rescuing our health care system—Leader McConnell won’t support new legislation to fight this evil disease unless it gives big corporations legal immunity.

Judicial nominees, legal immunity for big corporations—with all due respect, Republican Leader: these are not the nation’s most urgent priorities right now.

There are much more pressing issues that deserve not only the Senate’s focus and attention but should be the subject of bipartisan negotiations for the next emergency relief package, known as COVID-4. Here are just a few:

Our health system is under enormous strain. We need more money to flow to hospitals, community health centers, nursing homes.

Essential workers—many on low wages—work longer shifts at great personal risk. They deserve hazard pay.

Every first-of-the-month brings new rent payments to families suffering financial hardship. Relief for renters and homeowners must be on the agenda.

And state and local governments are stretched to the breaking point; imperiling the jobs of teachers, and firefighters, police officers, food inspectors, other public employees. State, local, and tribal governments need federal support.

And as we begin to contemplate a return to normal economic activity down the road, one thing is certain: we are not testing nearly enough Americans—not nearly enough—to know when the moment to safely re-open our country has arrived. Despite the length of this crisis—now measured in months—the administration has yet to develop an adequate national strategy on testing.

These are the urgent issues we should focus on. These are problems the American people want us to come together, Democrat and Republican, to solve. These are the topics—not red-lines in the sand on ideological wish lists— that we should be debating and negotiating for a future bill. The Republican Leader himself has acknowledged there isn’t enough testing on the front lines, but he has reconvened the Senate to do nothing to address the problem!

As we return to work under the cloud of crisis, Senate Republicans should concentrate on helping us recover from COVID-19, not confirming right-wing judges or protecting big businesses that threaten to put workers at serious risk.

The administration has done a very poor job of implementing parts of the CARES Act and the most recent supplemental emergency legislation. So Democrats have urged our Republican colleagues to, at a minimum, hold hearings on the implementation of all COVID-related legislation passed by Congress. It’s a positive step that Senate Republicans are following our request and considering scheduling some oversight hearings in the coming weeks with key White House Coronavirus Task Force officials.

These hearings are very important. Congress can make laws but only the Executive can implement them. But a time-honored responsibility of Congress—given to us by the Founding Fathers—is oversight to make sure that the Executive is executing the laws.  So we need to hear from Dr. Fauci, Dr. Birx, Secretary Mnuchin, Chairman Powell. We need to know why so many small businesses are having trouble getting loans while larger and more well-connected businesses are not. We need to know why unemployment insurance checks are failing to get to workers. Maybe above all, we need to know why we still don’t have enough tests.

Months ago, in early-March, here’s what President Trump said, quote, “anybody who needs a test gets a test.” It was a lie then. It remains a lie now.

Administration officials promised that 27 million test kits would be available by the end of March. It is now May, and it still has not happened.

The president continues to pressure states and businesses to re-open, but he refuses take responsibility for the one thing that will allow them to do it safely: testing.

You know how the White House knows that it’s safe to hold a press conference? They test all the reporters before allowing them into the briefing room. What does the White House do before the president holds a meeting with business leaders? They take everyone’s temperature and then administer a coronavirus test. Why on earth is there not a plan for the rest of the country, the whole country, not just the president and the White House?

Many experts—most experts say that we need far more tests than we have. If we had been on the same track as countries that used nationwide testing to stop their outbreaks—like South Korea, Canada—we’d be testing 2 million people a day right now, and already tens of millions would have been tested. Some experts say we should increase capacity to 30 million tests per week later this year; others are calling on it to be even higher. Right now, we are testing 230,000 people a day, a drop in the ocean compared to what’s needed.

We need testing capacity now, but we will also need it later. Some believe that COVID-19 will resurge later in the year, perhaps with a vengeance. There were reports today that the CDC has projected a growing number of deaths from coronavirus into the summer. And yet we still don’t have adequate testing or even an indication that the administration is focused on the problem. If, God forbid, this virus comes back in the summer or the fall, the best way to deal with it is testing—short of a vaccine which we won’t have by then. Testing. We don’t have it.

The lack of a national testing strategy, the painfully slow build-up of testing capacity, the gross exaggerations of success by the administration has gone on for far too long. This administration needs to take on responsibility for a national testing regime and deliver on it, immediately. It has been the eyes of most experts the best way to deal with the current crisis, and certainly the best way to prevent a future crisis from growing out of control.

There can be no doubt that this will be one of the strangest sessions of the United States Senate in modern history. Our offices will be emptied, our staffs working from home. Senate Democrats will not hold regular caucus meetings in person; we’ll do them by tele-conference. Anyone who comes to the well of the Senate to speak will wipe down their microphone and desk with a disinfectant and refrain from the usual practice of handing our speeches over to the Senate recorders. We will wear masks in the hallways of this Capitol and on our way home. We will vote in small groups and we will not do what comes so naturally to every public official: shake hands.

But the American people are watching us right now. They expect us to do our jobs. They expect us to come together to address the issues that really matter. We cannot, cannot and must not merely go back to business-as-usual here in the Senate. It is not business-as-usual out in our country.

Leader McConnell must hear this. Right now Leader McConnell and the Republican majority should shelve the divisive judicial fights and the partisan, divisive red lines. Let’s focus on working together: to heal the sick, employ the unemployed, stabilize the economy, and making sure the administration properly executes the laws we pass, so that we can prepare our country for the day when we will finally, God-willing return to normal.

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