RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
How do you put a dollar amount on suffering? So many Americans right now are waiting for Congress to figure it out. Lawmakers are closing in on a $900 billion deal to help Americans through the financial crisis related to the pandemic, but they're still hung up in negotiations. Joining us now, Democratic Representative Dean Phillips of Minnesota and Republican Representative Dusty Johnson of South Dakota. Both are members of the bipartisan group that calls itself the Problem Solvers Caucus. The group came up with a relief aid plan that got Congress talking again after a stalemate that had lasted months. Good morning to you both.
DEAN PHILLIPS: Good morning, Rachel.
DUSTY JOHNSON: Good morning. Thanks, Rachel.
MARTIN: I'll turn to you first, Congressman Phillips. Just to lay the state of play out for us, where do negotiations stand right now?
PHILLIPS: Well, it is early in Washington, of course, but I know my friend and colleague Dusty and I and most members of Congress, both in the House and Senate, are expecting today that negotiations will conclude and, God willing, there will be an announcement sometime today on a bipartisan, bicameral plan with White House support to finally long overdue get aid to American people who are suffering. And that's the mission on which Dusty and I and so many others have been working for so many months. And it will be both joyful but a sad day, considering how many Americans have lost lives, how many are in the hospital and some of the dark days to come. But we are optimistic.
MARTIN: Congressman Johnson, what can you tell us about the substance of the relief package?
JOHNSON: Well, the substance is very similar to what the Problem Solvers Caucus has been putting forward in recent weeks and months. I mean, we did not want to get to this point where the leadership was running up against a deadline. I mean, when Dean and I unveiled the first plan that we were the architects of, along with some of our colleagues back in September, that would have been a better time to act. But clearly, this plan has - its got direct stimulus checks of a more modest amount for low and middle-income Americans. It has a modest bump to unemployment insurance. It has, critically importantly, investments in the deployment of vaccine and continuing to test. As you know, Rachel, we're not where we need to be in testing in this country. We're not getting to 3 million tests a day. And for people like, you know, myself who want to make sure that we're giving school districts the resources they need to keep the kids in school safe, there will be investment in education. These are critically important places where our government can help.
MARTIN: Can you confirm the amount of money that's going to be included in direct payments to Americans who are hurting?
JOHNSON: Yeah, the most likely number will be around $600. Of course, the first round was $1,200. And I know, you know, there are going to be people who always want those to be larger. But the reality is this is a very expensive component of the plan. You know, it does have a nice stimulating effect on the economy. There are people who do need help. But also we want to remember that all of this money is borrowed - well, about half of it is repurposed from the CARES Act funding. But as we add new investment in things like direct stimulus, we do want to make sure that it's targeted and that it's focused and that it's going to help the long-term economic viability of this country.
MARTIN: Congressman Phillips, many Democrats said that the key to making the first round of stimulus relief effective was the fact that you gave relief aid directly to states to use in their state budgets. Have you had to surrender that?
PHILLIPS: Well, Rachel, it appears in the spirit of compromise that, indeed, direct state and local and tribal funding has been sacrificed, at least for the time being, which disappoints me. I happen to come from a state that is well managed, had a surplus before COVID and now will be in deficit and has great needs. And I am concerned, deeply concerned, that police forces, fire fighting forces and government workers around the country may be laid off because of this, but we can try again. But most importantly, we need aid now. And I recognize that. And despite my disappointment and, frankly, the disappointment of many governors around the country, I think we will proceed without it and then hopefully get back to it in January.
MARTIN: Congressman Johnson, that's what Democrats are sacrificing. What are Republicans giving up in this compromise?
JOHNSON: Well, the other half of our proposal that has been, you know, set aside for the time being by leadership is some limited liability protection for businesses, schools and health care providers. That is a major ask of many Republicans. It's run into some discomfort from the Democrats. And, you know, as Congressman Phillips said, I mean, to get a deal done, what leadership felt was necessary was setting aside the two most contentious areas - one that was of interest to Democrats, state and local, one that was of interest to Republicans, liability - and those would be taken up in the new year. And I think if that's what it takes to get this deal done now, I think that's understandable and ultimately laudable if it helps us get it done.
MARTIN: Congressman Phillips, you told Speaker Pelosi last month that your support for her was dependent on getting a deal done. Why did it have to come to that?
PHILLIPS: Well, Rachel, as a freshman member of Congress, our political capital that we've accrued is limited. I decided I would spend every penny of it to fulfill my core mission, which is to help people. I saw a photo a couple weeks ago, like many of your listeners, of thousands of cars lined up in Dallas, Texas, at a food bank. I learned that 40% of those families had never needed a food handout before in their lives. And I made the decision after seeing that photo and similar ones from my own hometown of Minneapolis that I would speak with the speaker and let her know that it was the single most important issue to me, that being on any certain committee or having a certain bill passed was in second place compared to the most important mission. And it still is the truth. If we get this bill through the Congress, I will vote for her. If we do not, I will seek new leadership because that is the responsibility of leadership.
MARTIN: And it sounds like both of you.
JOHNSON: And, Rachel...
MARTIN: Go ahead.
JOHNSON: Can I just - yeah, let me just note about what - the remarkable thing that Dean Phillips just said. I mean, so many people come to Washington, D.C., and they are interested in accruing titles and fancy office space and in accruing power. Dean Phillips - and, frankly, this is true of all of the Problem Solvers, whether we are conservatives like myself or liberals on the other side - Dean Phillips was willing to set aside all of that and attempt to do good for the American people. That's remarkable.
MARTIN: I want to ask about your moniker, the Problem Solvers, and another potential problem. Congressman Johnson, we're roughly three weeks away from January 6. Congress is going to be presented with the results of the Electoral College certifying Joe Biden's win. There's an effort afoot by Republicans in Congress, some of them, to undermine those results, notably Congressman Mo Brooks of Alabama. They say they will object to prevent Biden's win. As a Problem Solver, do you see it as a problem that Republican colleagues of yours are trying to undermine a free and fair election?
JOHNSON: Yeah, I do think, Rachel, that, you know, at some point when the Electoral College has spoken and this process has come through, we are going to need to come together as a country. I mean, the reality is all 50 states have certified these election results and all 538 electors have placed their votes. And in this scenario, next year with with the Joe Biden administration, we're going to need to focus on solving these problems.
MARTIN: Republican Congressman Dusty Johnson of South Dakota, Democratic Congressman Dean Phillips of Minnesota, thanks to you both.
PHILLIPS: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.