With the passage this week of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act, the United States is now on track to spend some $6 trillion in total on measures related to ending the pandemic.
Among the plans most vocal supporters is Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who, as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, helped shepherd the plan through Congress. Sanders says this latest round of appropriations will do no less than rebuild the economy, safely fill classrooms again and help restore faith in the government.
"In my view, this particular piece of legislation is the most consequential piece of legislation for working families passed in many, many decades," Sanders says in an interview with NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday.
But the relief package has not been without its critics. Republicans universally opposed the plan, with some calling the price tag far too high, and others saying it's filled with measures that have little or nothing to do at all with combating COVID-19. Sanders says bipartisanship would have been nice, but that ultimately Americans will care more about the direct payments they'll soon receive as a result of the bill than the lack of GOP votes.
Sanders spoke with NPR about the plan's benefits for working families, the effort to reopen the nation's schools and why he says he's "outraged" by one particular development far removed from the coronavirus pandemic: the plan by Major League Baseball to eliminate 40 minor league teams, including his beloved Vermont Lake Monsters.
Below are excerpts of the conversation, edited in parts for clarity and length.
The relief package the president signed this week, $1.9 trillion, the White House says direct payments might start getting into bank accounts this weekend. Is it different from the plan you would have tried to pass?
Yeah, it is in a number of respects, but having said that, in my view this particular piece of legislation is the most consequential piece of legislation for working families passed in many, many decades. And it understands that the working class of this country today is facing more desperation than any time since the Great Depression. It also understands that we don't rebuild our economy, we don't get our kids back into school unless we crush this pandemic. So if you look at this piece of legislation, which is 628 pages, it is really transformative in terms of addressing the needs of working families in our country.
Is there something you would like to point out to us that's in there that maybe wouldn't have been included under other circumstances?
You know, at the end of the day, with half of our people living paycheck to paycheck, when millions of people are working for starvation wages, people facing eviction, some of us believed that getting a direct payment out to working families — family of four gets $5,600 — that was important.
The other thing, again, that I focused on, is we have more than doubled funding for community health centers, which means that we are going to have working families, lower-income people all over this country be able to walk into a community health center in a way they haven't been able in the past, to get not only primary care, but dental care and mental health counseling, which today, as you know, is in a crisis situation.
You, of course, have run for office with a lot of union support. And let me put it this bluntly — have teachers unions been concerned with their own safety from COVID, which is understandable, more than the welfare of many of their students, who need the schools to be open and supporting their families.
Absolutely. Well, I mean, what we need to do is to make sure that we protect teachers, we protect students and that we open schools as quickly as possible in a way that is safe. ... And it's not an easy thing. For example, you have kids getting on school buses. Well, we want to make sure that, you know, kids are adequately spaced apart. We want to make sure in fact we have enough teachers to be available — might be teaching a fewer number of kids per classroom. So there's a lot to be dealt with, but the bottom line here, there is no debate, we ought to open the schools as quickly and as safely as we possibly can.
The American Rescue Plan didn't get any Republican votes. Does that portend anything for you with so many issues coming up in the Congress where some bipartisan amity might be a good idea on looming issues like immigration as we see another spike in the number of children congregating at the southern border.
Well, I think everybody wants bipartisanship. But what is most important is that at a time when this country is facing unprecedented health crises, economic crises, educational crises, mental health crises, we've got to move and if the choice is doing it without Republican support and moving aggressively or spending, you know, month after month after month debating and discussing and not doing anything, to me the choice is pretty clear: We do it. And when the American people get those $1,400 checks, they're not going to be sitting around saying, "Oh, my goodness, this is not good, we didn't have any Republican support." I think they're going to be understanding that finally, that the United States Congress, the president, are beginning to respond to their needs.
I have to ask you this lastly, Senator, you were opposed to the plans of Major League Baseball to eliminate 40 minor league teams, including the Vermont Lake Monsters. You've called it greedy. I'm not sure any baseball owners would feel maligned to be called greedy. What about their argument, though, that the minor leagues are just an inefficient way to discover and develop talent these days?
You know, Scott, you're touching on a sore spot for me, because it's something I feel really strongly about. Look, I am not a baseball expert, so I don't know how you develop talent. But this is what I do know, is you go to a minor league game and kids get their hotdogs, and the ballplayers are often very nice and they'll sign autographs and kids, you get good seats for a couple of bucks. Minor league baseball is enormously important to dozens and dozens and dozens of communities all over this country. It is a beautiful thing. Baseball is not just, you know, paying $50 million for some great athlete, you know, who plays for the New York Yankees. And I am really outraged that at a profitable institution like Major League Baseball, these guys want to eliminate baseball in so many communities around this country. It really is awful to my mind.
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