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The Oregon Democrat rejects the GOP stance, says businesses should 'reasonably' protect workers and customers.

PMG FILE PHOTO - U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., at a meeting with Pamplin Media Group reporters and editors last year. He spoke with reporters on a conference call Wednesday, May 6, about his priorities for a new coronavirus aid package from Congress.U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley says a broad shield against legal liability is unnecessary for businesses to reopen after a weeks-long shutdown prompted by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Oregon Democrat, in a conference call with reporters on Wednesday, May 6, also said such a shield — backed by the leader of the Senate's Republican majority — should not be a condition of more federal aid to state and local governments facing big budget shortfalls and more flexibility for small businesses to use the almost $700 billion in federal aid they have.

Merkley responded to comments by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has said there will be no new aid package without severely limiting lawsuits. Merkley said if businesses follow a set of specific protocols that protect workers and customers, that should be sufficient.

"What he proposes would not only hurt workers and customers, you would damage the economic recovery," he said during the call from his office in Washington, D.C.

"If we want to reopen the economy, people have to have confidence they can go into a retail space and know that fundamentally reasonable provisions have been implemented to protect their health and for the workers coming to work."

The timing of more aid is in question. Congress already has passed four bills amounting to almost $3 trillion.

"I think it should be next week," Merkley said. "However, the president has said he and the administration are in a wait-and-see mode," perhaps in another month. "I think that is too far into the future."

The Senate reconvened earlier this week. But Merkley said no one was in his office in the Hart Senate Office Building — staffers are working from home — no one was in the hallway, and except for Capitol police, there was no one he could see below. He said he saw a few senators briefly while they cast votes in the Senate chamber — no proxy voting is allowed — but the Democratic and Republican cloakrooms are closed and Senate hearing rooms are prepared for social distancing of members and staff.

PMG PHOTO: JASON CHANEY - U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley addresss a crowd of about 150 at Barnes Butte Elementary School in Prineville in January, before the coronavirus quarantine. "It is stunning, in this economic implosion, to imagine that 30 million people have lost their jobs in six weeks — almost a fifth of the entire American workforce." —U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley

Priority list

Merkley, a member of the Appropriations Committee, spoke about some of the priorities he has advanced for the next coronavirus aid package, not in any order:

• Paycheck Protection Program, under which the Small Business Administration provides forgivable loans to business with fewer than 500 employees. Despite two rounds of aid — about half of the latest $321 billion has been tapped already — businesses have complained that they cannot obtain help or they have been edged out by banks who gave priority to their own business customers. Some businesses such as the Los Angeles Lakers, whose value is estimated at $4.4 billion, got loans that they returned after drawing negative publicity. Some businesses say they need to use the money in ways other than keeping employees on the payroll.

"Making sure that businesses get through the door and increased flexibility are my goals," Merkley said.

• State and local aid: The $2.2 trillion CARES Act set aside $150 billion for states and some local governments to pay for coronavirus-related costs, but they cannot use their shares to offset projected budget shortfalls. Oregon got $871 million; Portland, $114 million; Washington County, $104 million. Multnomah County also is entitled to money, available only to governments with populations of 500,000 or more.

Merkley said the next aid package should provide $500 billion to $1 trillion as income and property taxes fall off. Oregon's next state economic and revenue forecast is Wednesday, May 20.

"We are seeing revenues go down the tubes at every level of government," he said. "That means the ability of state and local governments to provide basic services — health care, housing, education and transportation — is going to be deeply compromised. I think it is essential that we not allow that to happen."

• Aid for access to no-excuse absentee ballots: Merkley said he supports the effort by Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota to extend federal aid to states to institute mail ballots, but Trump and some Republicans oppose it.

"I have a more limited bill that would guarantee an absentee ballot to any American who wants one in the November election," Merkley said. "It is a compromise to ensure that people do not have to choose between their right to vote and their right to keep themselves healthy."

• Unemployment benefits, enhancements of which expire July 31: Merkley acknowledged that many of the delays in paying out benefits originate with states, including Oregon, that are overwhelmed by the sheer number of first-time applicants, newly eligible people such as self-employed and part-time workers, and antiquated computer systems. Still, Merkley said, unemployment rates are likely to set records beyond those in the Great Recession more than a decade ago, and even in the Great Depression 80 years ago.

"It is stunning, in this economic implosion, to imagine that 30 million people have lost their jobs in six weeks — almost a fifth of the entire American workforce," he said.

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