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Sen. Capito On The Latest Coronavirus Relief Package

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

More than two months after the House passed a new coronavirus rescue package that Democrats crafted, Senate Republicans have debuted their own plan. It's called the HEALS act, and it has some familiar elements - stimulus checks, funding for small businesses and more money for testing. New measures include liability protections for businesses, schools and hospitals, among other things. West Virginia Senator Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican, helped craft the bill and joins us to talk about it. Thanks for being here.

SHELLEY MOORE CAPITO: Thanks for having me on, Ari. Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Let's start with unemployment benefits. An extra $600 a week federal benefit has expired, and this proposal would give people $200 a week through September, then shift to a system where benefits don't exceed 70% of a person's prior earnings. Why reduce that benefit?

CAPITO: Well, I think what we're seeing, certainly in my state of West Virginia, as the additional $600 a week benefit has been a huge help for so many people that have lost their job. And in some cases - and, in fact, many cases, people are able to really make more on unemployment than they would have made in their job had they had access to their job. So now that we're seeing things reopen and things - people coming back to work, small businesses are having trouble getting people back to work. And my feeling is that we need to gradually wane this down so that, you know, your benefits are fairly equal to what they would be if you were working or what could reflect a normal unemployment compensation from a state, which I think is normally around 50%. We would sort of raise that up to 70, 75%.

SHAPIRO: To calculate that formula, that 70% of prior earnings, some state unemployment officials are telling us that's going to take months to implement. Some are saying their systems just can't accommodate that plan. What is your response to that?

CAPITO: And I think that's a serious and very real problem. So simple is always better, and simple is how we got to the $600 a week. So that's why I think maybe going down to the 200 while states are trying to transition over the next several months is probably a smart way to go. Am I tied to 200? Not - I think the effect of it is what we need to look at. If it ends up somewhere else, I think I can look at that as well. But I think 600 was meant to be temporary. And I think that it needs to come down so people, you know, are not incentivized to not go back to work.

SHAPIRO: I think many people appreciate the desire to get workers back on the job. But for some workers, going back to the job could be a death sentence. I mean, on Morning Edition today, we heard about manufacturing facilities in Los Angeles where people caught COVID-19 at workstations that were separated by cardboard dividers with holes in them. And since this plan also includes liability protection for employers, is there a risk of sacrificing worker safety just to get people back on the job?

CAPITO: You know, I would certainly hope not. I mean, certainly that's not my intent. I think that to help businesses - and I think Senator Portman has a bill in there that would give more resources to help prevent exactly what you talked about, some, you know, flimsy attempt at containing the virus. Those are not the kinds of precautions that are going to be taken that would be protected in the liability protection reform. You got to remember it's not just small businesses. It's schools, it's nonprofits, it's hospitals. If you're doing it the right way, some protections are in order.

SHAPIRO: Let's talk about schools. This bill would send $100 billion in funding to schools, but two-thirds of that money is allocated for districts that are planning to reopen for in-person instruction. Could it be a mistake to push schools to reopen in the fall when the U.S. is still seeing this disease spread like wildfire right now?

CAPITO: You know, my understanding is that there is some flexibility here for the states to be able to really determine what's the best way for them to reopen, which I think is the way we should do it. I think encouraging opening is where we want to go and what we need to do and what's going to be good for everybody. We need to look at what's the best way to deliver the service. And if it means that they have to stay closed a little bit longer, then we should be able to accommodate that.

SHAPIRO: You know, there's going to be a long negotiation with Democrats ahead. But first, it looks like Republicans will have to get onboard with this. And just in the last day, we've seen some real divisions. I mean, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was surprised when a reporter told him that this bill includes funding that the White House wanted for new FBI headquarters near the Trump Hotel. Texas Senator Ted Cruz has said the focus of this legislation is wrong. How do you negotiate with Democrats when there is that much division within your own party?

CAPITO: Well, we have a lot of independent thinkers, I'll say that. And, you know, that's, I think, the beauty of - if I could say - of the Republican Party, is that we're not - you know, we analyze data, and we have different opinions of it. In the end, I think we've tried to hit kids, schools, jobs and health care. I'm sure we'll have a long negotiation, or sometimes we can have a short negotiation and surprise everybody. Let's hope for the best.

SHAPIRO: Just to get specific, do you support the funding for the new FBI headquarters? I mean, the House Democratic Whip...

CAPITO: I do not.

SHAPIRO: ...James Clyburn calls it egregious. You do not.

CAPITO: I do not. No.

SHAPIRO: OK. The House, as you know, passed its version of a coronavirus relief bill in May, and unemployment benefits have at this point already expired. What do you tell voters who want to know why it took the Senate this long to come up with a plan?

CAPITO: You know, I think what we've said all along is that we need to look at - we've already put over $3 trillion in here, which a trillion is still yet to be fully disbursed across the country. So now we can look and see who's falling through the cracks still. So for instance, in the PPP program, we've narrowed the focus there to smaller businesses, to businesses that have 50% loss so that they can get a second crack at the ball because they're still really suffering. I don't know how we could have known two months ago whether we still needed to have individual assistance. Now we know. I don't think we've lost ground by waiting. I think we're just doing it smarter and more efficiently. And I think that's what the taxpayer would want. And I think that's what we've tried to do here.

SHAPIRO: Senator Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican of West Virginia, Thank you for talking with us today.

CAPITO: All right. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.