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Biden's Bill Is Not Like Prior Bipartisan Relief Measures, Rep. Smith Says

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

The House this morning is expected to give a final OK to a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package. Included in the bill is another round of direct stimulus payments to Americans, an additional $300 a week in unemployment benefits and monthly payments to families with children that Democrats claim could halve child poverty. But the Biden administration's first big legislative priority will likely pass without any bipartisan support. Republicans balk at the price tag and also the way this money is being spent.

One of those Republicans is Congressman Jason Smith of Missouri. He voted against the bill last month. Smith is also the top Republican on the House Budget Committee. And he joins us now. Good morning, Congressman.

JASON SMITH: Good morning, Scott. Great to be with you.

DETROW: Appreciate you being here. Let's start with this - the president's overall COVID response is pretty popular so far. This bill is popular according to polls. Why do you think that is?

SMITH: It's because the bill has changed so many times throughout the process that once the American people see everything that's in it, the popularity will not be there. It - as what I've said all along, it's the wrong plan at the wrong time. If this bill was about direct payments to people and putting shots in the arms and vaccines, you would have strong bipartisan support across this Congress, across this country. But less than 9% of the entire spending in this bill actually goes to crushing the virus and helping distribute vaccines and putting shots in arms.

DETROW: And I want to get to some of the details that you would rather see in the bill in a moment, but first, I want to play you something that Speaker Pelosi said yesterday about objections from you and other Republicans in Congress.

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NANCY PELOSI: We have a Democratic president - all of a sudden, many of the same features of those other bills, in one size or another, are in this bill, and the Republicans have decided they cannot be for it. That's unfortunate.

DETROW: What's your response to that?

SMITH: Yeah. This bill is nothing like the five prior bipartisan bills, which I want to point out to all the listeners - out of those five prior COVID bills that all passed by bipartisanship that Republicans voted for, there's still over a trillion dollars of money that has not been spent in there - over a trillion. And so then they're asking for another $2 trillion. But the direct payments to workers, Republicans just want it to be targeted and timely. We put provisions in there that the Democrats rejected that would prevent prisoners from getting direct payments, would prevent illegal immigrants from getting direct payments, and the Democrats refused to have it.

The worst part of this legislation is, is by passing this legislation, it's going to create $36 billion in cuts to seniors and Medicare over 10 years, resulting in hundreds of billions of cuts to Medicare. That's a fact of the bill. And another huge issue in this bill is that if this was imminent to pass this money, why is almost half of the money in this piece of legislation not going to be spent to 2022 or later and some not as long as a whole decade? That's unacceptable.

DETROW: What's a top-line number of a bill that you could have supported? This, of course, is $1.9 trillion.

SMITH: It's not about the dollar amount; it's making sure that it's going where it's needed. I was one of the few Republicans that supported a direct $2,000 stimulus check, where we voted on at the end of December. So I think that the best COVID bill - and I said this to two White House advisers, along with all the other Republican rankers on the call, early on in the conversation, when we talked to the White House - we would support health care spending and funding and direct checks.

You know, we don't want all this other stuff that is unrelated to COVID. You're talking about over a half-a-trillion dollars of money going to state and local governments that don't need it. For example, the biggest windfall of money going to any state is the state of California. And guess what? California has a $10 billion surplus last year. They don't need it.

DETROW: Well...

SMITH: They have a $10 billion surplus.

DETROW: ...In terms of this widespread spending, we have this interesting situation now where a lot of Republicans are making criticisms, and Democrats aren't saying that those criticisms are wrong; they're saying, yes, we're happy about that. I mean, just for example, the child tax credit, you have progressives like Bernie Sanders, the Biden administration, saying this certainly isn't targeted to COVID specific, but so many families are suffering because of this economic situation and the uncertainty that this makes sense. Why is something like that, for example - or more broadly - why is that broad approach wrong in a moment like this of such uncertainty, with health and the economy and everything else?

SMITH: You know, the best statement was actually by The Wall Street Journal board, where they said the Biden spending bill is the wrong remedy for an economy that is growing. The best economic stimulus is to end the lockdowns and accelerate the vaccine rollout. What will help American families more than anything is to end the lockdowns, allow people to go back to work, allow their kids to go back to school in person. That will change the economy more than anything.

I'm someone who - I fought for increasing the child tax credit several years ago, from $1,000 to $2,000. It's actually my legislation. But this bill is full of so many unnecessary items that don't go to help the working class.

DETROW: Let's...

SMITH: And it's at the expense of the working class and senior citizens, like I told you.

DETROW: Yeah.

SMITH: The $36 billion cuts every year to Medicare just because of passing this bill.

DETROW: Last question here. Let's look forward a little bit. The president has made it clear he wants to move on to an infrastructure bill next. We have been making cynical jokes about infrastructure bills for five or six years in Washington now. But he's made it clear he sincerely wants it to be bipartisan. What kind of infrastructure bill would you and other Republicans support right now?

SMITH: Republicans want an infrastructure bill that's truly bipartisan. I mean, we know that our roads and bridges and ports and locks and dams needs the assistance. And I think we can get to a bipartisan approach as long as it doesn't turn into, like, a Green New Deal proposal that increases taxes on all Americans. So...

DETROW: OK. So we'll talk...

SMITH: ...If it's truly an infrastructure bill, we're about it.

DETROW: We're running out of time, but we'll talk about that again with you soon. Missouri Republican Congressman Jason Smith. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.