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Lankford Pushes for Targeted COVID-19 Relief, Gives Update on Vaccine

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WASHINGTON, DC – Senator James Lankford (R-OK) today spoke on the Senate floor about the ongoing negotiations in the Senate to finalize an additional COVID-19 relief package before the end of the year. Lankford offered an update on the timeline for a first vaccine available to certain groups, particularly essential workers, in Oklahoma by as soon as this weekend. Lankford has worked for months in the negotiations toward further targeted COVID-19 relief and has worked to provide oversight of existing COVID-19 relief programs.

Transcript

Four different times in the last four months we’ve had votes on this floor to talk about COVID relief. There’s a real need to be able to get relief to people in my state, quite frankly in states around the country. There are individual items that need to be done, that are unfinished, and I think we need to actually finish them. We have this week and next week to be able to finish the tasks at hand. We have twelve appropriation bills. We have a National Defense Authorization. But in my state, people want to know most: what’s going to happen with COVID relief? Where’s that going to go?

Well, apparently now we can actually have the debate. After the election was over, Speaker Pelosi announced that she was actually ready to negotiate the bill now that the election’s finished. Well, great. The folks in my state have been waiting because four times in the last four months we’ve brought up bills that were serious bills to be able to actually debate this out and to be able to get the aid that’s needed to be done, starting with additional money for distribution for vaccines.

The first vaccine will come on the market by this Friday. It will be in arms by this weekend or at the latest Monday in my state, in Oklahoma. And as I visit with the people in my state that are in charge of the distribution. They have a terrific plan that they’re engaging to be able to work with healthcare providers across the state to be able to get them first access—these folks that have been living in PPE for months, and months, and months now to now have the opportunity to get a vaccine will be a tremendous gift to them. It’s incredibly important that this happens, and I do want to congratulate the folks in the science community, that folks that are at Operation Warp Speed at the White House, and so many other individuals that have worked so incredibly hard to be able to take a vaccine from first identification of a virus to a vaccine in 11 months. That is remarkable speed to be able to get something done.

Though I have read recently that the New York Times is now putting this quiet little accusation that the Trump Administration didn’t buy enough of the Pfizer vaccine, and the rest of the world’s just going to get it. And the Times just conveniently leaves out that the Administration actually purchased 700 million doses of the vaccine from multiple different manufactures very early on, taking the appropriate risks to say, ‘We don’t know which one’s going to be successful. So let’s try to be able to purchase from all of them, not knowing if six of them will be successful or if one of them will be successful.’ It was the right strategy then; it remains the right strategy. In addition to the fact that the Pfizer vaccine that’s coming out first, which we’re all very grateful for, is 95 percent accurate as far as setting aside the virus. It is 100 percent effective against severe outbreaks of the virus. It’s a remarkable vaccine, but it has to be stored at negative 70 degrees, which there’s very few places in my state and in many other states that have an ultra-cold freezer that maintains that. So it’s a great vaccine, but it’s limited in the way that you could actually distribute it quickly.

There’s a Moderna vaccine that’s coming a week later, that we will actually have twice as much of, but it doesn’t require the same ultra-cold storage. So this first round of vaccines that will be coming to my state by this weekend, another round of vaccines from another manufacturer by next weekend, and by the end of this year—in just the next few weeks—we’ll have 20 million people that will have been vaccinated. That’s a great start, but clearly there’s another 300 million people to go. By the time that we get to the end of February, we’ll have 100 million people that will have vaccinated, and that doesn’t even count the additional vaccines that are coming online. The Johnson & Johnson vaccines is a single-does vaccine. It should be online in February. That’s very significant to us because that will also provide us tens of millions of additional individuals that can be vaccinated. We could very well be completely vaccinated as a country by the time we get to this summer. We could be completely vaccinated with the most vulnerable population—everyone in our health care, every single nursing home, every single skilled nursing, every single assisted living, and all of those with high-risk conditions like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, and individuals with diabetes and heart disease—those individuals could be completely vaccinated by the time we get to the end of February. That is just two months away.

We’re finally getting close. But we do need some additional dollars set aside for the distribution of that to actually get to that point. We need additional dollars for testing. We’ve done 200 million tests on COVID-19. I’ve had several of those. Most everyone in this chamber has had several. Many people across my state have had several to be able to evaluate things. I’ve always tested negative. I’m grateful for that.

But there are many people that still continue to need that testing. We need to continue that.

We have individuals across my state and across all of our states that need access to the Paycheck Protection Program. This was a risk that we took in March to try an assistance for individuals in a completely different way knowing that the unemployment assistance in all of our state’s is antiquated and overrun by individuals. There had to be another way to be able to sustain individuals that would be unemployed and to sustain small businesses to not go out of business as we go through this. What we created was something called the Paycheck Protection Program. I was honored to be a part of that small group that actually helped write this and dream it out. It was for small businesses and not-for-profits, and for the first time ever, including faith-based not-for-profits. Knowing many of them are a key safety net in our communities across the country, and we could not lose that safety net during this time of the pandemic. I’ve had individuals ask me over and over again for two key things in the Paycheck Protection Program. Number one, please make it clear on how to be able to get final forgiveness to be able to close this out. There are literally millions of small businesses that have a Paycheck Protection loan that they want to get forgiven but the process for going through forgiveness is so complicated that they’re struggling with that—closing it out. And they want to get it done. There’s an easy way to do it that [Senator] Kevin Cramer has actually coordinated and led in this body. Senator Cramer’s work has been remarkable and tenacious to be able to help guide us toward a simple solution to be able to get to individuals and business who took out loans of $150,000 or less. To be able to get forgiveness for that in a simple process, on a single page at that station to be able to go through that. That needs to be included in whatever we’re doing, and we need to have a second round for those businesses that are the hardest hit.

Let me tell you an example of this. I had a business leader of a small business in my state email me just yesterday, and this is part of his email, he said, “it sounds like there is a chance for another relief bill. I hope that’s true. We’re expecting– our sales have fallen through the floor again. With the change in weather and the rising case counts we’ve lost over 50 percent year over year, and I hear the same from many of my counterparts. It’s highly likely that we’re going to have to go through another round of furloughs in January. Honestly, it probably makes sense to do that now, but we’re not going to do that to anyone through the holidays. We’re hoping for some assistance to keep people on payroll and benefits. At worst case, if there’s no relief for us I hope there’s additional unemployment coming so people aren’t destitute. It maybe April before we’re able to support our business based on our own revenue.” His comments are not uncommon with many others that I have received. They can make this and they have a viable business but just not in this kind of environment right now.

What are we going to do about that? I’ve recommended not only the attestation for forgiveness businesses but also a second round of to be able to allow those that have been through this small business Paycheck Protection Program to go through it again and get a second bite of that apple—short-term for the hardest hit businesses, and also to allow some of those businesses that are legitimately small businesses to actually get a first shot. Many people don’t know that not-for-profits, including faith-based not-for-profits and small businesses all got access to the Paycheck Protection Program if you were supported by donors or by a bank or credit union.

Small businesses all got access to the Paycheck Protection Program if you were supported by donors, or by bank or a credit union. But if your business was organized by private equity and that was your original capital you couldn’t get access to the Paycheck Protection Program. So that left thousands and thousands of small businesses out simply based on where they got their original capital from to be able to open their business. That’s not right. When we have the second round of the Paycheck Protection we should at least allow some of those other small businesses to get a first round through this process.

 

We need to continue what we’re doing for not-for-profits. Our safety net is very clear in America. Our families are our first safety net. Our second safety nets are our not-for-profits and our third safety net is government. Both state, local and federal. That second safety net that’s out there that’s so important in our communities, we need to do what we can to support them. In the CARES Act I helped put in a provision there that would give every American a $300 deduction on their taxes above the line. Even if they don’t itemize their taxes they get a $300 straight deduction from their taxes if they’ll give to a nonprofit. They can pick any nonprofit they want to give to- the arts community, the homeless community, those that are helping with mental health, those are that are helping with food programs. Their churches, synagogues, mosque, they can choose any nonprofit they want to. If they’ll give to a nonprofit, every single American gets a deduction up to $300. That counts for this year and I would encourage Americans to take advantage of that because nonprofits around the country desperately need assistance right now.

What we’ve written into a proposal is to be able to double that amount for next year.  For individuals $600 or for a couple filing jointly $1200,  you could write it off on your taxes completely even if you don’t itemize your taxes if you would donate that amount to a not-for-profit. What would cause that? Well philosophically for me it’s a couple of things. I believe in the power and the strength and the efficiencies of not-for-profits.  In small towns around my state and all around the country there are local not-for-profits and churches and faith-based institutions doing the work to help the hurting, hungry, and homeless. We should support them. They’re in real need right now of our support.  There are groups all around our nation that need people to be able to step up and walk alongside them as they walk alongside the neediest in our communities.

The best way we can do that is to incentivize that with taxes. We can either say we can have a larger tax piece here or we can encourage people to actually give locally. I think that’s an efficient way to be able to help people. We need to be able to step up as my friend who had emailed me yesterday reminded me. If we can’t get the Paycheck Protection extension done and I hope we can, we need to make sure the unemployment extension is out there because we’re going to have more people on unemployment. We should really do both. We could extend Paycheck Protection to be able to protect those individuals and those businesses and to secure them but we need to also secure our unemployment assistance program.

We have many folks with diabetes and other healthcare needs that can’t return to work right now. They are not in a position to telework and they need the opportunity to be sustained. Literally their benefits are running out in days. This is a moment we should extend that out for multiple more months to allow them the gap that they need to get through the pandemic, to be able to get a vaccine which is coming soon, and then get back to work as they’ve been dying to do.

And then be able to get back to work as they’ve been dying to do. We need to get liability protections. A lot of people have a lot of uncertainty and they are worried about lawsuits coming down on them and they don’t really know how to manage around it. I have letters from small businesses, large businesses and university presidents in my state that are all saying the same thing. ‘Help us just know the rules of the game are going to be. Because there is litigation coming at us and we don’t know how to evaluate this because this hasn’t been done before. Help us just know the rules of the road on liability.’ That’s not an unreasonable request for every university, large and small business across our nation.

Schools are going to need some additional help. And that’s based just on that child no matter where they attend—public, private, faith based, charter whatever it may be. It’s a child with a parent who is a taxpayer. Education is important and they should all be treated the same.

Childcare issues top of the list as well. As childcare facilities are out there, they are in desperate need and open and functioning–they can’t have the same worker to child ratio that they used to have. The costs are still the same. We need to get additional flexibility to our states. My state and many entities within my state still have additional dollars left over from the CARES Act. $1.5 billion came to the state of Oklahoma through the CARES Act?an enormous amount of money. They’re still working to try and handle it efficiently and how they’re going to be able to manage that. Thankfully, most towns in my state have had sales tax revenue go up this year. That is not true for all of them, but for many of them it has. But their expenses have also gone up. The challenge would be at this point is how can we give the state’s maximum flexibility with the dollars that they have to make sure they don’t have to squander those funds quickly to be able to get them done because the deadline to use them is December the 31st. More flexibility would be a good gift both to do wise spending and to be able to give them greater flexibility in the days ahead.  That’d be for states, counties, cities and tribes.

We should allow for the reprograming of funds. Interestingly enough, the Paycheck Protection Program had about a $130 billion dollars left in it when it expired. We allocated a lot of money not knowing how much would be needed for businesses, but that vast majority of small businesses that could take it, were able to take it. There are many as I mentioned before wanted to do a second round on that. The best way to do that is to program the unused funds that were there. That’d be more efficient. Federal Reserve has unused funds in the hundreds of billions of dollars. We should cancel out those programs and use those funds. That’s a wise use of funds to make sure we’re not squandering American tax dollars. Every single dollars that’s being spent on COVID relief right now is debt money. So we should pay attention to those issues of debt money. Knowing that we need to be careful with other people’s money. There are things we need to do in the next 10 days here. And having conversations in private and like this in public to say ‘let’s get it done. Let’s finish the task we need to get done.’

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