Tester and Daines place support behind $2T virus stimulus package

Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines both placed their support behind an economic stimulus package negotiated on Wednesday, and while some aspects of the measure remain unpalatable, they believe it will provide relief for small businesses, employees and hospitals strapped by the COVID-19 virus.

Tester said the package marked a vast improvement over the previous version, which failed to win Democratic support. If it passes, it would provide one-time payments to most adults, billions of dollars to small businesses through emergency grants, and funding to local governments and hospitals.

“I believe that with the improvements we’ve made to this bill, it will help provide the next phase of critical, urgent relief that Montana’s small businesses, their employees, hospitals, and the communities that have been hardest hit, desperately need,” Tester said.

Tester described earlier versions of the stimulus bill as a “$2 trillion unchecked bailout for the largest corporations.” Democrats failed to line up behind the previous bill, which twice failed to pass earlier this week.

“It created a slush fund that would have allowed the treasury department to unilaterally pick which businesses got taxpayer dollars without any real guardrails preventing corporate bonuses, layoffs or stock buybacks,” Tester said.

While the new bill retains what Tester described as a $500 billion “slush fund,” he said other measures will provide important relief to small businesses and their employees, so long as the Treasury Department properly administers the programs.

Within the legislation, the bill includes emergency grants to small businesses and provides a one-time payment of $1,200 to most adults. It will also ensure that most laid-off workers receive their full pay for four months.

“We’re seeing an unprecedented surge in unemployment in Montana as we speak,” said Daines. “This is to provide immediate relief to our workers who lost their jobs because of the pandemic. It will be about $600 more a week than they’d normally receive from the state of Montana. This is intended as short-term relief – four months – as we weather this storm.”

The measure also offers a paycheck protection program to small businesses, nonprofits and self-employed individuals, covering eight weeks of payroll, mortgage interest, rent or utility costs.

Much of the relief intended for small businesses would come in the form of grants, which would be forgiven as long as they continued to make payroll and retain their workforce.

“It now includes $10 billion for Indian County and $20 billion for the VA where before, in the (Sen. Mitch) McConnell proposal, they both got nothing,” Tester said. “We also secured money for state and local governments, along with K-12 and higher education, which were left out of the original Republican proposal.”

Despite those measures, Tester was disappointed with the bill’s $500 billion earmark intended as relief for certain industries. Still, he said, that portion of the package will include a special watchdog and other sideboards to guard against corporate fraud, stock buybacks and CEO bonuses.

“I’m incredibly disappointed that the administration and some of my Republican colleagues forced us to accept their nearly $500 billion slush fund in order to get the relief Montanans desperately needed,” Tester said. “It’s a fact that when it’s raining soup in Washington, corporations and special interests put a bowl on their head.”

Daines, who also held a media call Wednesday, said the funding earmarked as industry relief is needed to protect jobs. He said that portion of the package will ensure banks can provide loans where needed as certain industries face liquidity and insolvency problems.

Under the measure, Daines said, those loans must be repaid. It also restricts executives from buying back stock, and it limits their compensation. Industries that receive loan support are required to maintain full workforce.

“Bottom line, that’s how you protect the jobs,” said Daines. “There’s some guardrails, and we got some good bipartisan agreement on that from both sides.”

Daines also supported the final bill, just as he did the two earlier versions. He described it as a strong bipartisan measure that provides help to Montanans suffering from lost work, lost wages and other factors related to the virus.

“We’re seeing small business shutting their doors and Montanans needing help,” Daines said. “It was very important that Congress came together. This is not a Democrat or Republican moment. It’s so much bigger than that. That’s not lost on the men and women who are serving back here in Congress.”

While the funding is intended to right the nation’s sudden economic challenges and make workers and small business whole during the pandemic, the $2 trillion fix doesn’t come cheap.

It is, Tester and Daines said, all borrowed money.

“The time to pay that debt down is when times are good,” Tester said. “Unfortunately, over the last three years, when times were rockin’ and rollin’ and things were going well, we increased the debt by $1 trillion a year. That was a huge mistake. I said it at the time and I’ll continue to say it.”

Daines said the package will continue to add to the nation’s debt.

“It’s continuing to add to the debt of the county, which is a concern to many of us,” he said. “But at this moment in time, allowing the economy to just absolutely crash would have a far greater cost to this, the largest economy in the world, of some $20 trillion than it would to use these extraordinary means to allow workers to keep their jobs and the economy to keep moving forward.”