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As Pandemic Relief Bill Awaits President’s Signature, N.H. Sen. Shaheen Reacts To Compromise

Allegra Boverman for NHPR

Both the U.S. House and Senate have passed a massive pandemic relief bill.The $900 billion package would be the first significant pandemic aid from Washington since the spring.

It includes $600 stimulus payments for millions of Americans, aid for vaccination efforts, and small business loans, among other measures.

New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen has been working on the compromise legislation with a bipartisan group of colleagues in the Senate. Shortly before the House signed it, she spoke with NHPR’s Peter Biello about what the bill contains.

Peter Biello: Senator, thank you for taking some time to speak with me.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen: I'm happy to talk with you and hope that everyone out there is going to have a safe holiday.

Peter Biello: We are certainly all hoping for a safe and healthy holiday season. Senator Shaheen, this relief bill has a lot in it. Enhanced unemployment benefits, aid for schools and child care, housing support. What is most significant to you?

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen: Well, I think the individual help for families, whether it's an extension of the unemployment benefits or the pandemic relief checks, are very important to families. And the small business provisions, 325 billion to help small businesses where we know so many people are employed and our small businesses, we need to help them get through the winter, because we had a hearing in the small business committee a week ago. And what we heard was that we've lost 25 percent of our small businesses nationwide. And if we don't act, we're going to see another 25 percent loss in the next few months. So I think both of those provisions are very important. But so is the funding for our schools, for vaccine distribution, for testing and tracing, for child care, for nutrition. We have so many people who are food insecure right now in New Hampshire. We see long lines waiting for food and of course, housing and homelessness. There is additional help for rental assistance and an extension of the moratorium on evictions.

Peter Biello: Right. And last time we spoke, you said there wasn't the political will for a stimulus checks. But this legislation does have one time payments of $600. So what do you think tipped negotiations in favor of stimulus payments?

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen: I think the White House weighed in and was very strong in saying what they wanted in order to sign it. They wanted to see those stimulus payments.

Peter Biello: So credit the White House for those 600 dollar payment.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen: A number of us in Congress have been calling for that. So I'm hopeful that it's going to get signed soon and the relief is going to go out to people as soon as possible.

Peter Biello: Jobless benefits in this bill include 300 bucks a week in federal unemployment payments for 11 weeks. What kind of a difference do you expect this to make?

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen: Well, this 300 dollars is what, when I worked with a number of my colleagues, four Republicans and four Democrats, on putting together a COVID relief package that we think has provided the framework for what was ultimately decided on. And that package, we had 300 dollars a week as well. So I think this is important for those people who have been unemployed to get some additional assistance and it's short term. So we've got to continue to look at what more we need to do to ensure that our small businesses stay afloat, that they can keep people employed, that those people who are unemployed can get help that they need until they can start working again.

Peter Biello: As far as I understand, Senator Shaheen, this bill leaves out liability protection for business owners who are worried about being sued by people who say they contracted COVID-19 in their business. What do you say to those who hoped this would have been included?

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen: Well, that was not included, as well as no help for states and local communities. So unfortunately, we couldn't reach agreement on those provisions. Hopefully, we will get back at this as soon as we get back in January and the new administration comes in and will be able to reach an agreement.

Peter Biello: So you're hoping the Biden administration will include federal aid to state and local governments?

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen: Well, they're going to have to work with Congress to do that, as you know. So I'm hopeful that we can start negotiating again, recognizing that this is a real need. I talked to mayors and municipal officials in New Hampshire last week on Thursday. And what I heard from them was they were very worried about if they don't get any assistance, they're seeing their revenues drop in communities. And the need to lay off municipal workers, teachers is a real concern. Police, firefighters. And so they clearly need some help. They've been on the front lines of this pandemic.

Peter Biello: But what about the business liability? I mean, do you have anything to say to those who are business owners in New Hampshire who are hoping that maybe they could get some protection from people who may want to sue based on contracting COVID-19?

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen: Well, again, I would expect us to revisit that provision as well in the new Congress.

Peter Biello: Do you support a provision like that?

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen: It depends on what it says, Peter. I mean, the issue is always in the details.  So there are a lot of businesses who have played by the rules, who have followed CDC guidelines, who have done what they should. And in that case, they should have that protection. There are others that have not. So I think we've got to look very carefully at what any relief from liability is going to say and how it's going to continue to protect people who are working, but also provide help for businesses. We don't want businesses to go under because they're being sued.

Peter Biello: Have you received your first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine or do you plan to receive it soon?

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen: I have not received it, Peter. I don't think it's right for me to go ahead of those people who are in front of me, the health care workers and the people in long term care facilities who really need the vaccine. I'm coming up. My category is coming up and soon. And so I will wait until it's my category and then I'll get the vaccine.

Peter Biello: You’re referring to the category of age - is that what you’re referring to?

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen: Yes. If you look at the breakdown, the breakdown is first health care workers and those in long term care facilities and first responders. Then it goes to people in different age categories as well as people with pre-existing conditions. So there are a number of categories, and I intend to get my vaccination as soon as I'm eligible to do that. I think it's really important that people see public officials who have gotten the vaccine, that they understand that it's safe, that it's important for us to all get vaccinated. The goal under Operation Warp Speed is to have everyone in the United States vaccinated by June. So it's going to be a major effort. We're seeing vaccine distribution happening now. I think we should be very proud in New Hampshire because we've got Lonza down in Portsmouth that's partnering with Moderna and they're going to be making several million doses of the vaccine by the end of the year.

Peter Biello: So going back to the legislation, this bill is likely to be the last big compromise in the Trump presidency. Anything could happen, of course, but likely it's the last. The need for pandemic assistance is going to be with us for the foreseeable future. How do you expect the conversation to change once President-elect Biden takes office?

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen: Well, as most of us have said, this is an emergency relief package to help get through the winter months, to help those people who have run out of assistance, to help small businesses who are worried about how they're going to get through the winter months, and to help until people can get vaccinated and we can begin to see the economy open back up again. I think we will see, when President-elect Biden takes office, an administration that has committed to trying to get more assistance to people, that is committed to trying to get stimulus for the economy. And I would hope that we will see people on both sides of the aisle work together to do that.

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.
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