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“It’s Inadequate”: Rep. Ro Khanna Says White House Stimulus Plan Helps Big Business, Not Workers

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Amid concerns over the spread of coronavirus at polling places, many Americans stayed home. Nearly one in five households have already experienced a layoff or a reduction in work due to the pandemic. Trump wants to inject more than $1 trillion into the economy and send a $1,000 check to everyone. This comes as the Senate is set to consider a multibillion-dollar package bill passed by the Democrat-led House Monday night that includes significantly weakened paid sick leave measures. We get response from California Congressmember Ro Khanna, who has also co-sponsored a bill for an emergency Earned Income Tax Credit that would give up to $6,000 to everyone who made less than $130,000 last year. His Bay Area district has been hit hard by the coronavirus, and about 7 million residents there have been told to stay home for all but the most crucial outings until April 7.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The number of reported cases of coronavirus in the United States has surged to more than 6,200, though the devastating lack of tests means the number infected is exponentially higher. Deaths have topped 107. Millions are staying home to avoid spreading the disease. Nearly one in five households in the United States have already experienced a layoff or work reduction due to the pandemic, according to a new PBS/NPR/Marist poll. On Tuesday, the Trump administration said it will support a plan to inject more than $1 trillion into the U.S. economy to fight the unprecedented drop in economic activity. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said the stimulus package would rapidly deliver a $1,000 check to most American adults, with more direct payments likely in the months ahead.

TREASURY SECRETARY STEVEN MNUCHIN: Americans need cash now, and the president wants to get cash now. And I mean now in the next two weeks.

AMY GOODMAN: Mnuchin called the pandemic “worse than 9/11” for the airline industry and called for a $50 billion bailout. This comes as the Democrat-led House passed a multibillion-dollar package Monday that significantly weakened paid sick leave measures it tried to enact days earlier. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act passed the House Monday evening after changes were made that were called “technical corrections.” The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that, quote, “Democratic aides were alarmed by the changes, which were passed with no objections because House lawmakers are away from Washington [on recess]. The changes weren’t shown to most lawmakers before the vote,” unquote.

Well, for more, we go to Congressmember Ro Khanna, Democrat from California, member of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. In response to the pandemic, he’s also co-sponsored a bill for an emergency Earned Income Tax Credit that would give up to $6,000 to everyone who made less than $130,000 last year. His Bay Area district has been hit hard by the coronavirus, and about 7 million residents there have been told to stay home for all but the most crucial outings until April 7th. They are sheltering in place.

Congressmember Khanna, welcome back to Democracy Now! In a moment we want to talk to you about the primary results and Joe Biden’s sweep and should the primaries go on. But right now let’s go right to what’s happening in the House, the discussions of unemployment insurance increasing, of paid leave being guaranteed. Is this happening?

REP. RO KHANNA: It is. We need to do all of the above. I mean, we need a massive stimulus. The first thing we need is a cash infusion to ordinary Americans, many of whom have seen paychecks reduced, many of them who have already filed unemployment insurance claims. We need to extend unemployment insurance. We need to beef up the paid leave. The House took the first step. But as you know, large corporations were excluded. They shouldn’t be. And we need a guarantee of paid leave, not just for the coronavirus, but if people are sick, we don’t want them coming into work. So, there’s a lot of work that remains to be done.

AMY GOODMAN: But what is happening? What kind of pressures are being brought on the House? Let’s talk about that paid leave. Yes, in the end, apparently, with Nancy Pelosi negotiating with Mnuchin, the exemptions were made for companies that have more than 500 workers or less than 50. We’re talking about, at first, the bill passed would affect maybe 20% of workers getting paid sick leave, but now it sounds like it’s going to be much less than that.

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, it’s inadequate. There’s no doubt about it. That said, Amy, I mean, every House Democrat believes in paid leave and believes that it should apply to companies larger than 500. The problem is that we’re negotiating with Trump and McConnell to get anything done. I do believe, though, that we have a lot of leverage. I mean, this president needs a deal. The economy is on the verge of a real crisis. And we should make sure that we are pushing for things that are actually going to help. And we know, from all the economists, that that means paid leave. It means getting money into the pockets of those who are unemployed and the working class. So we need to reexplore this and, in this third package we do, make sure that we don’t have the exemptions for companies over 500, and make sure we’re reimbursing not just for coronavirus, but for a period of up to two weeks, if there are small businesses that need that reimbursement.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about what the White House is now proposing. At first, President Trump — I mean, until in the last few days, he’s been saying, “Who even knew anything like this could happen like a month ago?” referring to the pandemic. Now he’s saying he’s always known there was a pandemic. And the White House and Steve Mnuchin are proposing this $1 trillion bailout, originally asking for much less. But who will profit, in fact, in this? What guarantee, as he has had a stream of corporate executives at the White House over the last few weeks, that it’s the workers that will benefit, that there will be strings attached to the massive amount of money that could transfer to U.S. corporations and wealthy individuals?

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, what we need to do is have — if we are going to have a trillion dollars, have that directed to increasing unemployment insurance, have that directed towards direct cash grants to every American who’s making under $150,000 or $130,000, so that people actually who need the money are getting it. What we shouldn’t have is large bailouts for industry.

Frankly, what the president ought to be doing is invoking the Defense Production Act, so that we can have some of these industries producing ventilators. We have a huge shortage of ventilators here. In Britain, they’ve converted Rolls-Royce factories to producing ventilators. What we ought to be doing is moving our economy to a footing where we can produce medical supplies.

So, the last thing we need is bailouts for large industries that look like just a handout to shareholders. We need to give the money to working-class Americans, to Americans that are hurting, to the poor and low-wealth that Reverend Barber talks about, about 140 million Americans who are double the poverty line or less. That’s who needs to get the money. And then we ought to reorient our economy towards producing things that are going to help us deal with this coronavirus crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: After yesterday’s primaries, Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders spoke Tuesday night from his campaign headquarters in Burlington, Vermont, laying out a plan for how the U.S. should respond to the coronavirus pandemic. This is a part of what he said.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: We need to make certain that everybody in our country who needs to go to a doctor can get the healthcare they need regardless of their income. This is kind of a no-brainer, something that should have happened in our country many, many years ago. But in the midst of this crisis, what I believe we must do is empower Medicare to cover all medical bills during this emergency. Now, this is not Medicare for All. We can’t pass that right now. But what this does say is that if you’re uninsured, if you are underinsured, if you have high deductibles, if you have high copayments, if you have out-of-pocket expenses, Medicare will cover those expenses, so that everybody, regardless of their healthcare needs — and I’m not just talking about the coronavirus, but their healthcare needs in the midst of this crisis — will get all the healthcare that they need.

AMY GOODMAN: Ro Khanna, you’re co-chair of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. Elaborate on how this is being presented in the U.S. Congress, with most Americans, even before the pandemic was spreading to the extent it was, for example, being for Medicare for All. But what would this mean right now? And how can this be enforced in the House and then get it passed through the Republican-led Senate?

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, Senator Sanders said it’s commonsense. We don’t want someone to face a bill of a few thousand dollars if they’re sick and going to the doctor at this point. And what the senator is saying is, it’s not just making sure people are getting tested for coronavirus. If someone has the flu, if someone has other symptoms, if someone is ill, you don’t want them to be going to work. You don’t want them to avoid going to a doctor or going to a hospital or having — engaging someone even on the phone or through telehealth, because of a bill. And so, for at least a period of three months or six months, we ought to say that the basic healthcare of every American is going to be covered. This is going to make us safer, because we’re only as safe as the least insured among us. And we are hopeful that this is something that everyone can get around. I mean, it’s not, as Senator Sanders said, Medicare for All. It’s an emergency three-to-six-month plan to give people healthcare. We’ve seen in a country like South Korea that has been far better at testing based on a single-payer approach.

AMY GOODMAN: Testing. Let’s talk about testing. Let’s talk about the devastating lack of tests that are available to people, despite what the president keeps saying, that every American can get a test. We know that the lack of tests are fueling this pandemic in the United States, that public health officials can’t see where there are outbreaks, that people can’t know whether they are — have tested positive, though have symptoms and are desperately trying to. I mean, it now has been documented that the U.S. could have used the World Health Organization tests —

REP. RO KHANNA: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: — like South Korea and other countries. They didn’t. They put out a flawed test of their own. And now can you tell us, is there an accounting of where these tests are? Can they be made available? What can you do as a congressmember?

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, Amy, it is the biggest national scandal that we did not use the World Health Organization tests. I asked in committee both the director of the CDC and a senior official at the NIH, “Why did we not use the World Health Organization tests?” And they were unable to give us an answer. They had really no explanation, other than, I think, an overreliance on everything had to be American-made, which is fine if we had the capacity, but we didn’t, because we had systematic underinvestment in public health. Our CDC budget should have been much higher. But the point is that at some point there has to be a reckoning why we didn’t use those World Health Organization tests. It was probably the biggest mistake made.

Now all of us in Congress are pushing for tests to be widely available. There has been progress on these tests that should be deployed. The challenge is, we’re probably still a week or two weeks out. And then we need telehealth. And some of us have been calling and have a plan with COVID Alliance to get a national telehealth center, because we don’t want every American rushing to go get a test. You have to first see if you’re symptomatic and have the profile that would require a test. And a lot of that can be done through telehealth by consultation with doctors and nurses, so that we don’t overburden our healthcare facilities. Unfortunately, that hasn’t yet been set up.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the Federal Reserve of emergency reserve, the devastating effect of this on healthcare workers and the kinds of just personal protective equipment that people can have access to?

REP. RO KHANNA: It’s mind-boggling, Amy, why we don’t involve the Defense Production Act to do two things. First, we ought to be producing as many N95 masks as possible. I’ve heard so many stories from my district of doctors and nurses. They only are having one mask that they’re wearing throughout the day for different multiple procedures. And that’s just frankly unsafe. We need to protect the people who are on the frontlines of this crisis. And second, as so many experts have said, we are at real danger of running out of ventilators. And if that happens in this country, we’re going to have awful choices about who we save and who doesn’t get saved. And I don’t understand why there’s not outrage and a cry in this country to turn every possible production facility into producing ventilators so that we have as much supply as possible. That really ought to be an urgent challenge. There’s 57 members of Congress who have written to the president to do that. But this shouldn’t be about politics. We just need great production of ventilators and production of masks in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, before we go to break, then we’ll also be joined by Vanita Gupta talking about the primaries yesterday, one of the hardest-hit nations is Iran, where researchers warn the rate of infections won’t peak 'til May, that there could be as many as three-and-a-half million people who will die. Amidst everyone's focus, of course, on their personal health and the community health, there’s very little reporting on what the U.S. did yesterday, which was imposing fresh sanctions on Iran, keeping up its economic pressure campaign even as the people of Iran are dealing with this coronavirus pandemic, calling on the Islamic republic to release detained Americans. Can you respond to this?

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, we have to have some sense of humanitarian concern. It’s wrong for us not to be assisting Iran to deal with its own crisis. And there is a sense of the worth of human life that transcends any border or any politics. And I have called repeatedly for making sure that our sanctions are not in any way impeding humanitarian aid, medical aid getting to the Iranian people so that they can deal with this crisis. And second, as we’ve seen, there is no such thing as a disease that is contained within one nation. The more the disease spreads in a place like Iran, the more it hurts the entire world. It’s not going to stay just in Iran. So, this is something that is yet again a misguided administration policy in Iran.

AMY GOODMAN: Ro Khanna, please stay with us, Democratic congressmember from California. His community, the greater Bay Area, is now under orders to shelter at home. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in 30 seconds.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: That’s cellist Yo-Yo Ma. As the coronavirus pandemic spread, he took to social media Monday to share a song of comfort, a song from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 3. He dedicated the song to the healthcare workers on the frontlines, writing, quote, “Your ability to balance human connection and scientific truth in service of us all gives me hope.”

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