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Bipartisan 'Problem Solvers' Stimulus Bill Gains Ground


By any measure, this week was filled with bizarre and disturbing news, with the president of the United States obviously still recovering from COVID but insisting on resuming public activities and a potentially deadly kidnapping plot directed at a prominent governor. Now, we're going to touch on all of these stories, but we are going to start with something that affects just about everybody in the United States - the latest negotiations on Capitol Hill to fund a relief bill.

Now, back in March, Congress authorized, among other things, $600 a week in assistance to people who had been laid off during the pandemic. That program expired at the end of July, and since then, we've started to see a surge in demand at food banks, for example. But Congress and the White House have been unable to come to a deal on a new relief package.

Earlier in the week, President Trump ordered Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin to stop negotiating with House Democrats. Then, a couple days later, the president said talks were, quote, "starting to work out." But amidst all this, a bipartisan group of lawmakers called the Problem Solvers Caucus came up with a plan of their own. Now they're hoping the White House will negotiate. I'm joined now by the caucus' vice chairs, Republican Congressman Fred Upton from Michigan.

Congressman Upton, welcome.

FRED UPTON: You bet. Thank you.

MARTIN: And Democratic Congressman Thomas Suozzi from New York.

Congressman Suozzi, welcome to you.

THOMAS SUOZZI: Hey. Thanks for having us on.

MARTIN: I'm just going to start with you, Congressman Upton, because I understand that the White House has responded positively to the relief package the caucus has proposed. What's the latest on that?

UPTON: Well, we're anxious to try and get a deal. It would be a bipartisan one. You know, when the Senate failed to pass the package a few weeks ago, a good number of us in the Problem Solvers Caucus sat down and said that this is not acceptable. We can't wait. So we came up with a plan. We worked lots of hours, Labor Day weekend and through the month of September.

And we then made our proposal to the White House as well as to our leaders, Republicans and Democrats, and said, look - if our group of 50 members of the Problem Solvers Caucus, equally divided between Republicans and Democrats, can get a package together, why can't you? So it would be aid for the airlines. It would be stimulus checks, more PPP, liability relief for small businesses, assistance for real expenses because of COVID for cities, townships, counties, aid for our educators. They've got a lot more resources that they've got to pull down to try and operate.

And it was a comprehensive plan. We thought that it fit within the parameters of the ceilings that both Speaker Pelosi and the White House has said. And we want to get the nation's business done ahead of politics.

MARTIN: As I understand it, the White House has said that they want a so-called skinny bill with just a few things on it. The Democrats and this caucus, the Problem Solvers Caucus, has really stood firm on a comprehensive relief bill. Is that about right?

UPTON: Well, the White House message, frankly - and Tom and I talked about this earlier this morning - it's changed a bit. You remember Tuesday night, the president said that he wanted to stop everything. He told Mnuchin, the secretary of the treasury, the lead negotiator with the speaker, to stand down. And then, a day or two later - even Friday - he said he wanted to have a number that's even higher than what the Democrats wanted. So there is a sweet spot.

MARTIN: And, Congressman Suozzi, when this proposal was released in mid-September, House Democratic committee leaders were cool to it. I mean, they actually issued a joint statement saying that it, quote, "falls short of what is needed to save lives and boost the economy." But that seems to have changed now. What do you think has changed on your side of the aisle?

SUOZZI: I think that everybody agrees that we just have to get something done. And it's not so much about the dollar number. You know, the dollar number is not that far apart right now. But it's more about the actual language and what the package is going to actually do. So we need to make sure that that language takes care of this big problem that exists where so many people are suffering in our country.

There's going to be a lot of police officers and teachers and health care workers that are going to be fired from state and local governments unless we figure out a way to get state and local money to these governments that have spent so much on coronavirus relief as well as lost revenues. You know, states and counties where I live have been devastated because they've lost so much money in sales taxes.

MARTIN: Can I just ask each of you - actually, that's where I was going to go next. I'm imagining both of you were hearing from constituents. I was just going to ask you briefly if you'd just tell me one thing you've heard from your constituents that is sticking with you as you are going through these negotiations. Congressman Upton.

UPTON: Well, it's a lot of calls on the stimulus checks. You know, people are looking for another stimulus check to carry them through. And again, Republicans and Democrats are on board with this. So why can't we get it done and actually get a bill that the president can sign to the president? I guess the other big piece is PPP. That's the Paycheck Protection Plan. You know, so many of our restaurants, the entertainment, hotel industry - they need another round of help, a lot of these small businesses.

MARTIN: Congressman Suozzi, what are you hearing from constituents that's really sticking with you?

SUOZZI: One thing that's really struck me is how uneven the effects of this are. Grocery stores are doing great, but a lot of restaurants that don't have outdoor dining are devastated and shut down. Big box retail - doing fine. Small mom-and-pop retail - devastated.

You know, I headed to a press conference this past week with live entertainment venues - you know, people that have comedy shows or bands or plays or great things that make the - your communities exciting. But there is a projection that 90% of independent entertainment venues will go out of business completely. So it's just very uneven, the impact it's having.

MARTIN: I have to ask you about something that both of you mentioned in the course of this conversation, which is that your caucus is evenly divided by intention between Democrats and Republicans, that you've been working on this for months, and, as a caucus, you've been able to come up with a plan that both sides - that everybody in your caucus has signed onto. I just - I think a lot of people might wonder, why is this something that this caucus can do that the larger Congress can't? Congressman Suozzi, what do you think?

SUOZZI: Unfortunately, a lot of the conversation in America today is driven by the extremes. And, you know, it's the far, far left or the far, far right. It's - that's who gets the most followers on Twitter, on Facebook. And it's exacerbated on cable news. You watch Fox News, and you watch MSNBC the same time, same news day, and they're completely different universes.

But most Americans are just, like, hey, can't you guys just work together and figure this out - you know, sit down in a room like normal people would and try and solve the problems? That's what people want us to do.

MARTIN: That's Congressman Thomas Suozzi. He is a Democrat from New York. And we also heard from Congressman Fred Upton. He is a Republican from Michigan. And they are the vice chairs of the house Problem Solvers Caucus.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us today.

SUOZZI: Hey, thank you.

UPTON: You bet. Have a good weekend Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.