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Sen. King Says Pandemic Relief Bill Tackles Health, Economic Crises

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Independent Senator Angus King of Maine voted in favor of the relief package, and he joins us now. Senator, thank you for being here.

ANGUS KING: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: I want to pick up on what Kelsey said at the very end there. What do you make of the Republican critique that only 9% of the funding allocated in this $1.9 trillion bill is going to COVID relief?

KING: Well, it's nonsense, and it's disingenuous. And I'm being polite here because there are really two pieces to this bill. One is directly related to the health crisis, but the other and the larger piece is related to the economic crisis that the health crisis has created. And the reason I say disingenuous is that the major pieces of the bill - payments to individuals, extended unemployment, money for states and localities, money for schools - all of those things were in the covid package that passed last year that all the Republicans voted for.

So they were OK then, but they're not OK now, and that's what - I frankly couldn't really figure out that argument. You know, it sounds good. But, you know, do they not want aid to individuals? Do they not want extended unemployment benefits? I don't think so. But I don't understand their universal opposition. It just didn't make sense.

MARTIN: You're an independent, but you caucus with the Democrats. I mean, this bill is likely going to go through on a strict party-line vote. What does that portend about your ability to negotiate with Republicans or your incentives for doing so?

KING: Well, I hope that it doesn't portend that, you know, bipartisanship is dead. I don't think that's the case. In fact, as I - you know, we sat through this session that went from Friday morning until about 1 o'clock in the afternoon on Saturday, yes, it was partisan. Yes, there were party-line votes. But I think it's important for people to know that we don't hate each other, that there wasn't acrimony. And I believe and hope that on other issues, we're going to be able to work together. And I think one of the problems here was that Republicans or a group of moderate Republicans started some discussions with the White House, but they were - they lowballed their initial offer to the point that it just didn't look like there was a future for the negotiations.

And also, there was an element of time. Everybody wanted to get this thing done by March 14, which is when the current boost to unemployment ends. So it was a question of, could we spend months and months on a negotiation or let's just get this done. And as I say, the outlines of the bill are very similar to the bill that I think practically all...

MARTIN: Yeah.

KING: ...If not all of the Republicans voted for.

MARTIN: You had issues, though. In an op-ed this weekend, you wrote about working to tighten and target the spending in the bill. Where was the money going that it shouldn't have been going to, in your opinion?

KING: Well, the concern was - the $1,400 was a very broad - the bill to pass - the House passed would have allowed people with what you and I would consider pretty substantial incomes to still get a check. And one of the things we felt - it was a matter of targeting. If we're spending taxpayers' money and particularly borrowed taxpayers' money, it ought to go to the people that most need it. So that was one of the areas that was changed from the House bill. The ceiling is the same, but it phases out faster than under the House bill. We just felt that was just a - made common sense. If you're going to spend the money, it ought to go to the people that need it the most.

MARTIN: You and seven Democrats voted against the amendment to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. This is no longer part of the bill. But can you explain your vote on that?

KING: Yeah. I think the minimum wage should be raised to $15 over time, which is what Bernie Sanders' proposal was. My concern is that it fundamentally changes what's called the tipped minimum wage, which is now much lower than the regular minimum wage, and the assumption is that people's tips make up the difference. And that's - you're guaranteed the minimum wage, by the way, under current law. If the - if your tips don't get you to the minimum wage, the employer has to make up the difference.

I just felt that the provision in Bernie's rule would be - No. 1, could actually hurt servers. We've got - well, in Maine, they did repeal the tipped minimum wage, and servers went to the Legislature and insisted that they change it back to the way it is now. And I think that's - I was worried about the servers, but I also worried about restaurants, which have been absolutely hammered, probably more than any other business, during this pandemic. I just didn't think this was the right time to do that.

I'm hoping we can work on a bipartisan bill that will make changes to the tipped minimum wage but also substantially increase the minimum wage along the line that we have in Maine, which is now $12 an hour, with an index for inflation. I think that's a key provision. The minimum wage has to be raised. It's ridiculous at $7.25, going back to 2007. And I think we can get there, hopefully. If the Republicans want to come to the table, I think we can get 60 votes.

MARTIN: Lastly, once this passes the final vote and the president signs it into law, this COVID relief bill, where will Americans see the most immediate impact?

KING: Well, it depends on how fast the Treasury can act. But I think they're going to see an immediate impact in those $1,400 checks that are going to come out to families, and that money is going to flow pretty much directly into the economy. So I think we're going to see a real boost within a month, and it's going to come at the right time. We're not out of the woods yet on this pandemic, and the danger is slipping back into a longer recession that could end up costing more than the bill that we just passed. So I think we're off to a very promising start, and I think we can get there, hopefully by the summer, early fall.

MARTIN: Senator Angus King of Maine. We appreciate you. Thanks.

KING: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.