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Sen. Mark Warner Makes Case For New Pandemic Relief Bill

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Biden came into office last week with two items very clearly at the top of his crowded to-do list - mounting a more efficient response to the pandemic and passing a massive new COVID relief bill. For the latter, he will need a lot of support from Congress, and that will likely not be easy, especially in the Senate, which is now evenly split between the two parties.

Today, a bipartisan group of senators met with President Biden's National Economic Council director, Brian Deese, to discuss the plan. We're joined now by one of those lawmakers, Senator Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia.

Senator Warner, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

MARK WARNER: Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: As we said, that President Biden is hoping for bipartisan support for this plan - it's a $1.9 trillion plan to help Americans and the U.S. economy stay afloat. It's a big amount of money. It has to be complicated. So I just wanted to ask, how did the talks go today? And are there any headlines you can share?

WARNER: Well, I think it was a very productive call, but all of us on the call decided that we would keep those conversations private at this point. And we need to get more details. And frankly, we just need to make sure we get good numbers.

MARTIN: OK, so let's talk about some of the background. You were part of a similar group of lawmakers - there's a lot of overlap - who helped break the impasse last November to get the last COVID stimulus bill passed, and that included a round of $600 checks for many Americans and an extension of unemployment benefits. Today, the Democratic leader, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, said the country needs a big, bold new stimulus plan. And as I'm sure you know, Republicans, a number of Republicans, are saying, well, that last bill just got signed. Most of the money hasn't even gone out yet. So what's the argument to do more now?

WARNER: Well, we've seen the economy weaken. We have seen the unemployment numbers go up. We've seen as this next wave of coronavirus has put many communities back into greater lockdown, particularly small businesses, restaurants are getting really slammed. I personally believe there is need for additional stimulus. But I think that case can be better made when we get more transparency and better numbers about how the last $900 billion, much of which has started to go out. But I think the administration needs to be very transparent about how those dollars have been delivered.

MARTIN: So tomorrow, the House is going to deliver to the Senate an article of impeachment against former President Trump, charging him with inciting the attack on the Capitol on January 6. How is that going to affect your work on the COVID relief plan? I guess I have two questions about that. First is bandwidth. I mean, do you and your colleagues have the bandwidth to do both? And secondly, what about politically? I mean, does this looming impeachment trial make it harder to achieve the kind of bipartisanship that you hope for to move forward on this big stimulus bill?

WARNER: Well, being able to walk and chew gum shouldn't be an impossibility. I mean, we are talking about the role - in terms of our role is - in the impeachment is to listen and be judges and reach a verdict. The - that could be done on part of the day. The other part of the day, whether it's talking about this COVID relief package, getting President Biden's nomination - nominees through - I'm proud that the first nominee that got through was - I'm the chair - incoming chair of the Intelligence Committee - was the director of National Intelligence. Avril Haines got confirmed the first on Inauguration Day. And there were clearly other things going on that day as well. So I do think we can do more than one item on an agenda at a time.

MARTIN: We've talked a lot about the Senate being 50-50. Now Democrats have the advantage of Vice President Kamala Harris to break the tie. But it just seems to this point, the parties seem to be having some difficulty agreeing on the basics of how Senate business should be conducted. So what is your sense of it? I mean, are we in for more gridlock in the Senate? Or do you feel that this might be a new era?

WARNER: You know, I thought, starting on Wednesday, it felt like I could exhale finally. I think a lot of my friends, family, I think, frankly, a lot of my Republican colleagues felt that kind of a cloud has been lifted. So I don't want to be naively optimistic, but I think we're going to get things resolved. I think we've got some momentum. I think, frankly, that this bipartisan group that broke the gridlock last time, the fact that the Biden administration is reaching out to us again early on bodes well. We want to get stuff done. And I do think the basic ground rules of the Senate - that Leader Schumer and Leader McConnell, I hope, will get that resolved in the next day or two.

MARTIN: We'll have to leave it there for now. I do hope we'll talk again. That was Senator Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia. Senator Warner, thank you so much for speaking with us.

WARNER: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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