Susan Collins represents Maine in the U.S. Senate.
Just in time for Christmas, Congress delivered a long-overdue and much-needed COVID relief package for the American people.
The $900 billion legislation represents significant progress in our protracted fight against this persistent pandemic. It provides crucial support to struggling families, our stressed health care system, hard-hit small businesses and their employees, challenged schools, and an overwhelmed Postal Service.
This legislation — along with distribution of more tests and effective vaccines — fuels hope that ultimately we can halt the devastating impacts of this virus. It also demonstrates Congress’ capacity to rise above partisanship to address our nation’s most pressing problems.
When we first faced this once-in-a-century pandemic earlier this year, Congress responded by passing five bills to shore up our families, health care system and economy. As the election drew nearer, however, agreement on additional assistance became elusive as both sides retreated to their partisan corners. Despite widespread consensus that another relief bill was required, there appeared to be an unbridgeable divide between the two parties. Numerous attempts to pass even modest proposals containing assistance with overwhelming support were mired in partisan bickering and blocked.
The day after the election, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, and I spoke about the urgent need to provide additional relief. Given the new wave of infections, we knew the American people could not continue to wait. We had to break the logjam and reopen negotiations, so we brought a bipartisan, bicameral group of colleagues to the table both figuratively and — in the case of a socially distanced pizza dinner — literally.
After working night and day through countless Zoom meetings, texts, emails and phone calls, we devised a $908 billion proposal, allocating funds to specific needs. It became both the foundation and the impetus for the final agreement. The result will help families, schools and small businesses get through this challenging winter and bolster our health care system.
I am particularly proud of the $325 billion small business section I authored with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-New Hampshire. It extends the successful Paycheck Protection Program that I previously coauthored, which supported millions of jobs in this country, including 250,000 jobs in Maine. This new bill will allow the hardest-hit small businesses like restaurants to receive a second forgivable loan to help them stay afloat and continue paying their employees. Supplier costs and expenses incurred to comply with public health guidelines would be covered as overhead.
Helping our restaurants survive is vital in a state where the hospitality sector is second only to the forest products industry in its economic impact. Restaurant owners have told me of having to lay off valued staff as cold weather made outdoor dining impractical and restrictions made it impossible for them to serve their usual number of customers inside.
I also championed relief for workers who have experienced harm due to the pandemic but did not fit well within previous COVID-19 relief programs. For instance, $200 million for loggers was included following my advocacy, similar to assistance that was extended to farmers and fishermen who lost their usual food service markets. Another example $2 billion for the first COVID-19 relief program targeted for buses, an industry that has been devastated by the cancellation of tours and school sports and trips.
To provide additional support for families, the legislation authorizes $600 stimulus checks, which phase out at higher income levels. For those who lost their jobs and cannot find work, supplemental unemployment insurance benefits of $300 per week are provided for 11 weeks.
Since reducing the spread of the virus is the key to saving lives, reopening our economy, and returning to normal, the final agreement includes funding for testing, vaccine distribution and our health care system. The legislation also makes substantial investments to support child care, rental assistance, expanded Internet access in underserved areas and other urgent needs.
The model for bipartisan cooperation that led to the COVID compromise should become the norm as we prepare to tackle other major issues next Congress, from lowering the cost of prescription drugs to improving our transportation infrastructure. The American people deserve no less.