Bipartisan talks on ‘targeted’ coronavirus relief bill underway, Portman says

Ohio Republican says a narrow package could get the U.S. economy, health care system through at least March

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, speaks with a reporter in the Senate subway on July 29.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, speaks with a reporter in the Senate subway on July 29. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted November 17, 2020 at 10:42am

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said Tuesday he's trying to put together a bipartisan proposal for a narrow COVID-19 aid bill in the lame-duck session that focuses on areas of common ground, like funding for vaccine relief and development, small businesses and unemployment insurance.

Portman, who announced he's participating in Johnson & Johnson's vaccine trials, told CNBC he believes a vaccine will be developed by year-end and "widely available" by March. But the intervening period is fraught with peril due to several expiring relief programs coupled with increasing caseloads and reintroduction of stay-at-home orders, he said.

"My hope is that we can have a bipartisan group here in the Senate," said Portman, a member of the Finance Committee with jurisdiction over tax policy and health care programs. "I’ve been talking to colleagues on both sides of the aisle on this, to help on a targeted, effective program that deals with what we have to deal with now, to get through this valley, really, between now and March."

Federal funding to accelerate vaccine development and distribution is "the best expenditure of taxpayer money that I can think of," Portman said. "This is so important. It’s a much better solution than lockdowns; it’s a much better solution than keeping people out of school and out of their churches and other places of worship. It’s the most important single thing, in my view."

Portman said he was also focused on renewing an extra 13 weeks of unemployment benefits available to jobless workers whose regular state benefits, which typically last 26 weeks, have run out. That provision, as well as a new pandemic unemployment program providing benefits for freelancers and gig workers, was enacted in the $2 trillion March relief law but expires Dec. 31.

He also cited the importance of another round of Paycheck Protection Program loans for small businesses, which expired in August. If eligible businesses spend the money mostly on payroll expenses, they qualify for loan forgiveness. "Obviously the PPP is really important to small businesses. Some of those businesses are being shut down by government edict again. We need to help them," Portman said.

Portman added that there's bipartisan support for "some important tax relief that's out there." He didn't elaborate, but provisions lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have expressed support for include tax credits for employee retention and new hires, and for defraying business expenses for cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment.

Several other tax provisions from March aid packages also expire at the end of the year, including employer tax credits for paid-leave costs, a suspension of airline excise tax collections and a waiver of required minimum distributions from retirement accounts.

Another 'gang' in the works?

While there's common ground on several areas Portman mentioned, the two parties haven't been able to rejuvenate discussions at the leadership level since the elections. Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin had been discussing a package worth nearly $2 trillion, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said the estimated $519 billion aid package Republicans introduced in September is sufficient.

Portman didn't cite any Senate Democrats he's been talking to by name, but none of them voted to move forward with debate on McConnell's bill either in September or October. It's not clear whether his efforts will succeed, and the history of bipartisan Senate working groups or "gangs" has not produced much success of note.

Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said Tuesday that he was unaware of any bipartisan proposals coming together at this point. "There are also general conversations, but there is no specific 'gang,' if that's what you're asking," Coons said.

Pelosi's public position, and that of President-elect Joe Biden, has been that negotiators should agree to the roughly $2.4 trillion package the House passed Oct. 1. Portman said that expansive measure won't pass and isn't needed at this juncture.

"We need to act and act now, and we can’t do everything the bill Nancy Pelosi has been promoting" would do, Portman said. "It doesn’t need to be a huge package, but it should be targeted and focused, and my hope is we can get something done before we take off for recess after Thanksgiving.”

He told CNBC he decided to join Johnson & Johnson's vaccine trials about 12 days ago because he was worried about polling that showed 50 percent of respondents in October wouldn't get a vaccine if it was available.

 "The numbers about peoples’ willingness to be vaccinated are actually pretty scary to me," Portman said. "I think that’s partly because of what happened during the campaign, which is very unfortunate, where you had some people saying that vaccines were not safe because the Trump administration was in charge."

Ellyn Ferguson contributed to this report.