As the coronavirus pandemic continues to crush the U.S. economy, federal lawmakers are considering giving cash directly to people.
The move has the support of Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., while the state’s other Democratic senator, Mark Warner, is expressing reservations with blanket payments that proponents hope will spur spending and protect people from going bankrupt.
“This is a severe economic crisis for so many and with a sense of urgency, I think we might need to make direct cash payments to families who have been affected,” Kaine told news reporters Thursday on a conference call. "Those who are hurting, we need to get dollars in their hands."
He added: “There is no amount of economic stimulus—none—that will be sufficient if we don’t get the public health piece of this right.”
The proposal supported by Kaine calls for immediately providing $2,000 for every low-and middle-income adult and child, including recipients of Social Security, Veterans Affairs benefits and Supplemental Security Income.
A second payment of $1,500 would be sent if the coronavirus outbreak continues into July or the unemployment rate in June is at least one percentage point higher than the three-month average from December 2019 to February. There would be a payment of $750 per person should the June unemployment rate be 0.5 percentage points higher than that same average.
Additional $1,000 payments would be sent quarterly if the Secretary of the Treasury makes what is known as an Economic Turmoil Designation and the unemployment rate continues to be a percentage point higher than the December through February average.
The money would be sent every three months until the unemployment rate comes within 0.5 percentage points of the December-February rate, according to a letter signed by Kaine and 17 other senators.
“We don’t know how long this is going to last,” Kaine said in an interview Thursday.
The basic concept has bipartisan support, with Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, proposing $1,000 for every American and the Trump administration saying it backs the idea.
“We’re looking at sending checks to Americans immediately,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Tuesday.
Said Kaine: “The fact that both the White House and the Democrats think direct cash payment is the best strategy is a good thing. That means it will likely be the heart of what we do.”
Kaine said he believes there's enough Republican support in the Senate to pass a version of the proposal.
In a call with news reporters Tuesday, Warner said he was not sold on the idea.
“If we use that tool right now, it might take the focus off of those families who, candidly, may be in need of more than $1,000,” he said. “Let’s take care and target the need where it’s greatest first and then, in terms of this macroeconomic policy that Senator Romney and others have suggested, I think we have to keep that arrow in our quiver.”
Asked Thursday if Warner maintains that position, spokeswoman Nelly Decker said he “has some reservations because he is concerned that it won't do enough to help the most vulnerable Virginians.”
“This proposal is a macroeconomic tool, and Sen. Warner wants to first focus on making sure that the most vulnerable Virginians can get help during this period of uncertainty,” Decker said in a statement.
The payments are one of several proposals aimed at helping the U.S. prevent a worse recession.
Some high-ranking Senate Democrats, including Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., on Thursday proposed suspending federal student loan payments during the outbreak, an approach that would require the federal Education Department to make payments on the loans on behalf of borrowers.
“Anybody who is losing income is going to have problems with payments - student loan payments, credit card payments, mortgages, monthly rent,” Kaine said. “So I hope that we will be trying to provide some relief for those things.”
He added: “If we can make cash payments, that may reduce the risk of non-payment on some of the others.”