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Biden, GOP Senators Meet Longer Than Expected On COVID-19 Relief

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A White House meeting between President Biden and 10 Republican senators went an hour longer than expected tonight as the group discussed COVID relief. The Republicans were presenting their alternative to the $1.9 trillion COVID relief package that President Biden has put forward. The Republican plan calls for less, some $600 billion in aid instead, with smaller unemployment payments that expire sooner and smaller stimulus checks. Senator Bill Cassidy was at the meeting tonight. He's a Republican from Louisiana and joins us now.

Welcome, Senator.

BILL CASSIDY: Thank you, Ailsa. Thanks for having me.

CHANG: Great to have you. Well, it sounds like it was a very long, hopefully productive conversation. Where did you all leave it?

CASSIDY: Where we left it - you really shouldn't start off with a top line and work towards filling it up. You're basically trying to prove you care more about the American people by spending more. But, of course, we recognize that we are borrowing this money, and there's a consequence and an opportunity cost if you don't spend it wisely. So with that said, both sides said, OK, these are our proposals, and this is why we propose this amount and not that amount. I spoke to education and pointing out, by the way, that already, we've appropriated about three times more than the Centers for Disease Control say is necessary for schools to safely reopen. The president countered and said, well, this is my understanding, and we made a commitment that we would - he would have his staff get us the facts upon which they based their decision. And, of course, we can share with them the CDC data and the other scientific literature as to why we think what's out there is adequate. Now, the difference between our amount and his amount for K-12 is about $110 billion, so it's a lot of money. So if they can prove their case, we'd be willing to give more. And hopefully, if they can't, they'd be willing to ask for less.

CHANG: Well, if Republicans and Democrats are not able to meet in the middle, some of your Republican colleagues have argued that using a process called reconciliation to pass this package - that is, Democrats passing it without any Republican support - will make it harder in the future for both sides to work together. That said, Republicans did use reconciliation back in 2017, when your party had control of the House, the Senate, the White House in order to circumvent any objections from Democrats back then. Why should Democrats act any differently now?

CASSIDY: So there's a couple things to that, a more nuanced, if you will, understanding. One thing that Schumer has spoken of - Chuck Schumer, the majority leader - is doing away with the so-called Byrd Rule, which is to say that only something which is germane to the budget can be included.

CHANG: Right.

CASSIDY: If you do that, then Katy, bar the door. They want to - the Democrats wish to put through increasing the minimum wage to $15 - certainly not germane to the budget but that they would use this process to jam it through, even though the CBO says that raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour would destroy 1.3 million jobs or something like that. Now, that's the sort of thing that should be discussed, debated, not jammed through on reconciliation because it has nothing to do whatsoever with COVID. And it has nothing to do whatsoever with the budget. So you would end up destroying the institution. Republicans and Democrats to date have never attempted to destroy the institution and their employment of budget reconciliation.

CHANG: Well, putting aside the issue of whether reconciliation being used in this case would violate the Byrd Rule, Democrats did win a Senate majority, in part because they promised to send more relief aid to people. So elections have consequences, right, Senator? Why shouldn't Democrats try to use every tool within their disposal if Republicans are unwilling to sign on to the package that they want?

CASSIDY: When President Biden gave his speech and he said he was going to reach across the aisle looking for bipartisanship and asking for unity - we have passed five different COVID bills on a bipartisan basis - five different COVID bills on a bipartisan basis, spending trillions of dollars. Nobody's gone small on this. Now, if you say, wait a second; we can't do a sixth because for some reason we've done five, but we can't do six because really we want a lot more than you want, and we don't think you'll give it to us because we can't give you the data to support the numbers, that's certainly not in the spirit of the previous five. It would be something that would be totally unilateral, not supported by data and only doing it because, by golly, we can. And I don't think that's unity, and I don't think that's bipartisanship.

CHANG: All right, one last question on a different topic - the former president has swapped in a new legal team for his upcoming impeachment trial in the Senate. Now, if his new legal team argues that there was widespread election fraud last fall or that the election was rigged, things that Trump has claimed with absolutely no evidence, would that impact your vote after the trial, your vote whether or not to convict him?

CASSIDY: Well, as a general rule, you want to mount a defense against something of which you're accused. And so, you know, I'm not an attorney. I'm a gastroenterologist. So it does seem like the legal team would be wiser either arguing the charges that have been raised or arguing the legitimacy of the ability to raise them. Something which is unconnected and which can be shown demonstrably not to be true seems a bad legal strategy.

CHANG: So again, would that impact your vote on whether to convict?

CASSIDY: I'd rather not respond to hypotheticals. On the first impeachment trial, I said, let me just listen to the trial, and then I'll make my decision. And I repeat that now. I oppose - I just avoid hypotheticals, and I say, let me go through the trial.

CHANG: Fair enough. That is Senator Bill Cassidy, Republican of Louisiana.

Thank you very much for your time.

CASSIDY: Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.