SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Mitt Romney called the agreement reached in the Senate on Wednesday to provide financial help to workers, families and small businesses, including direct cash payments to Americans, “good news.”
The nearly $2 trillion economic relief package in response to the coronavirus pandemic came after marathon negotiations between Senate leaders and the Trump administration the past five days.
“All in all it’s a good package. It’s not perfect. There are a lot of flaws in any bill that’s been rushed through as quickly as this has been, but it’s a big step forward,” he said in a video press conference.
Democrats, Romney said, pushed in a few things that he wishes weren’t there, but overall it’s legislation that “we definitely have to support.”
Utah stands to receive about $1.5 billion that will trickle down to cities, counties and towns, Romney said.
Romney said he is pleased the deal contains provisions he pushed for, including direct cash payments for workers and families, grants and loans for small businesses to keep their employees and an expansion of unemployment insurance to immediately assist laid-off and furloughed workers.
“With each passing day, hundreds of thousands of hardworking Americans are being laid off and employers are shutting down as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Congress cannot afford to wait any longer to deliver relief to those who need it,” he said.
The Senate passed the legislation Wednesday night, which now moves to the House before it can go to President Donald Trump’s desk.
Romney and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, however, didn’t get to cast votes on the legislation because they are self-quarantined in Utah. Both came in contact last week with Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who is infected with the virus.
Lee did not immediately weigh in on the economic relief bill.
The bill includes one-time payments of $1,200 per adult and $500 per child, $367 billion for small businesses, $500 billion for loans to larger industries, $100 billion for hospitals and the health care system and $600 more per week in unemployment benefits for those out of work.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told GOP senators in a conference call that he believes he can get individual checks out in two weeks, Romney said.
“I hope he’s right,” he said.
Romney was one of the first members of Congress to call for direct payments, proposing adults receive $1,000 checks from the government.
“It’s a bit of a refund, if you will, because people put a lot of money into Washington every year,” he said.
The agreement also includes a bipartisan measure Romney introduced to strengthen the supply chain in order for hospitals to have the necessary equipment and supplies.
The freshman senator also was among the first to decry the country’s lack of medical supplies such as masks, gowns, goggles and respirators, which he called “difficult to understand.” After outbreaks of respiratory diseases like MERS and SARS, he said, government leaders knew pandemics were possibly coming but failed to stockpile the necessary equipment.
“It’s really a crying shame and I’m afraid we’re going to pay for it in lives,” he said.
One part of the bill that Romney said creates a lot of angst among Republican senators is related to unemployment insurance. Democrats, he said, insisted that it increase by $600 a week. Adding that to what some unemployed people are already getting might be more than they were making when they had a job, he said.
“It would create an adverse incentive for someone to try and get fired so they can make more money on unemployment insurance than the could make at work. Clearly, that’s not a good idea,” Romney said.
All in all it’s a good package. It’s not perfect. There are a lot of flaws in any bill that’s been rushed through as quickly as this has been, but it’s a big step forward.
–Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah
Romney noted increased unemployment benefits would last only four months and a person would have to be fired to collect it.
“Nevertheless, that’s probably the provision that’s giving the greatest heartburn to myself and to my fellow Republicans,” he said.
Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, said Congress will certainly pass a stimulus package, but the question is how soon and what changes might be made in the House.
“Those are valid questions. Congress will act, and will act as quickly as possible,” he told KSL Newsradio’s “Dave and Dujanovic.”
Lawmakers had targeted the first week in April to mail checks directly to individuals but it will likely take until at least May for the money to go out. Curtis said it’s hard to get down to the specifics because the bill has many moving parts and pieces.
“Everybody understands the urgency here. That money today is more powerful than it is in May and more meaningful today, and every day that goes by, it loses a little bit of the impact,” he said.
And though the government won’t ask people to repay the money, he said, the pain will be felt in adding to the nation’s debt, which now exceeds $23 trillion.
“There is no free lunch,” Curtis said. “You won’t be asked to pay it back directly, but it does hit the bottom line of the country.”