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Oregon senator discusses shape of next federal aid plan that dwarfs two already cleared by Congress.

PMG FILE PHOTO - U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., during a visit with Pamplin Media Group reporters and editors last year. He spoke with Oregon reporters on a conference call Wednesday, March 18, about congressional action aimed at cushioning the economic effects of COVID-19 coronavirus concerns.U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley says getting cash to households is a step, but should not be the only one in a pending federal aid package, to keep the economy from going into freefall.

Merkley, during a conference call with Oregon reporters prior to Wednesday's Senate vote, said the package — now estimated at $850 billion to $1 trillion — may not be the final word from Congress as concerns about the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus affect people and their jobs.

"It probably means we are going to look at bill after bill as we try to adjust to a challenge we have never seen before," he said.

"What we are looking at is a complete implosion of the economy. That ripples through small businesses. They are saying their orders have collapsed. We are going to need a lot more help for families and small businesses."

Merkley spoke just before the Senate vote 96-0 to approve a $100 billion measure (HR 6201) that extends food and unemployment benefits, provides paid sick leave for workers who do not have it, ensures free access to coronavirus testing that is still in short supply, adds money to state Medicaid programs, and requires additional protections for health-care workers. The House is expected to vote on Friday.

Congress earlier approved an initial $8.3 billion package that Trump signed March 6, and some of that money is already going to Oregon.

Billions more in the works

The Trump administration and Congress are working on a third measure dwarfing the first two in scope, and is like to be even greater than the 2008 bailout following the collapse of financial markets or the 2009 stimulus spending during the recession that followed.

A proposal for federal checks is gaining support in place of Trump's original plan for a payroll tax holiday to put cash into every household. Estimates peg that cost at $250 billion.

"A one-time, $1,000 check that's a partial rent or mortgage payment for a lot of families certainly could be a valuable part of the overall package. But the package really has to focus on the significant impacts that will hit families," Merkley said.

"We need to keep in perspective that a one-time payment is not going to get us where we need to get to, and it's not targeted for those who need it most."

Merkley said he's interested in hearing from small businesses about what form of federal aid they would prefer — grants, low-interest loans or loan forbearance. He also said that whatever form the aid takes will have to streamline the usual process followed by the U.S. Small Business Administration, which awaits disaster declarations by states based on county assessments.

Merkley said he's willing to consider targeted tax breaks for specified business sectors. "They need to make sure they have worker-first policies… and to keep essential services in place for our economy."

Business aid may cost another $250 billion, though Congress and the administration have not determined the specific mix of programs.

Long-range priorities

Though Merkley is in the Senate's minority party, he is on the Budget and Appropriations committees, and is the top Democrat on the subcommittee that oversees the budget of the Food and Drug Administration.

Merkley did say he would like the newest package to consider more long-range spending for housing and public health. He is a former director of Portland Habitat for Humanity, and a former president of the World Affairs Council of Oregon, now World Oregon.

Merkley said he welcomed Trump's order to the Department of Housing and Urban Development to suspend evictions and foreclosures during the emergency. But he said that unlike a decade ago, when federal foreclosure relief was overshadowed by other priorities, Merkley said he wants the congressional leadership to commit to a decade-long housing program of $40 billion to $50 billion annually.

"We need to keep people in their homes, not pile onto the challenge of homelessness and financially distressed families trying to make rent and mortgage payments," he said.

Merkley also said that Congress must restore the capacity of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other agencies, all affected by spending cuts, to respond quickly to global disease outbreaks.

He said China had analyzed the COVID-19 coronavirus — its origin was traced to an open-air animal market in Wuhan — but that the U.S. government did not act on that information for weeks.

"Far more people are going to get sick and may die than if we had acted promptly," he said. "We have to have the infrastructure in place."

Merkley said the pandemic is only the latest to hit the world in the past two decades, following Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome in 2002-03, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome in 2012-13, and the Zika and Ebola viruses in 2014-16.

"We know that with the size of the human population on this planet, we are going to have viruses that move between human populations or make the leap from animals to humans," he said. "We need to have infrastructure in place so that from Day One, we are looking closely at it, mapping its DNA, and proceeding to figure out what kind of testing can be designed to identify it in a patient quickly and slow down the spread of it."

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