U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, spoke with Oregon reporters in a teleconference Monday about his efforts to obtain COVID-19 relief. The relief plan was approved on Monday and awaits President Donald Trump’s signature.
Wyden said he had wanted to extend $600 per week of unemployment relief but had to battle Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, for $300 per week, which is what the most recent package includes. The payments start on Dec. 26 and continue for 11 weeks.
Wyden criticized McConnell for inserting what Wyden said was tax deductions for “three-martini lunches” to the bill.
Wyden said he’d be watchdogging the Oregon Employment Department. He’s been critical of that agency over its slow rollout of unemployment benefits under the last COVID-19 relief package.
“We’ve got thousands of families in Oregon walking an economic tightrope, balancing a food bill against a fuel bill and the fuel bill against the rent bill,” Wyden said.
Wyden also recently negotiated a package in the Senate Finance and House Ways & Means Committee that would expand the employee retention tax credit in the end-of-year tax package as well as allow small businesses to deduct expenses covered by the Paycheck Protection Program.
“These folks are desperate in order to just keep their doors open and make it to the other side,” he said.
Wyden also pushed for an addition to the most recent COVID-19 relief package that will give low-income families an additional $50 a month for internet access, important for children who need access to online schooling and adults working remotely.
He said broadband will be expanded to some areas without coverage, and said that dovetails with his efforts to get more telehealth care for Medicare patients including mental health patients.
Before COVID-19 hit, Wyden and former Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch passed legislation that temporarily increased the availability of telehealth. Now he’s working to make those permanent and to include mental health care because mental health needs are off the charts, he said.
“I think we all know you can’t have rural life without rural healthcare, so it is a quality of life issue, particularly for folks who are elderly and isolated,” he said.