The U.S. Senate passed on Wednesday a multibillion-dollar aid package to tackle the ongoing economic struggle caused by the coronavirus pandemic, but did so without the assistance of both Oklahoma senators who voted no on the bill.
Sen. James Lankford and Sen. Jim Inhofe represented two of the eight no votes on the bill, which gives employees paid sick leave through two new laws — the Emergency Family and Medical Leave Expansion Act and the Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act. The bill also promised to provide free coronavirus testing.
The Emergency Family and Medical Leave Expansion Act gives eligible workers up to 10 weeks of protected paid leave for a reason related to the coronavirus. The Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act provides full-time employees up to two weeks of paid sick leave for essentially the same coronavirus related reasons from the Emergency Family and Medical Leave Expansion Act.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY., was determined to pass the bill, and said it was a “well-intentioned bipartisan product.”
“This is a time for urgent bipartisan action, and in this case, I do not believe we should let perfection be the enemy of something that will help even a subset of workers,” McConnell said before the vote.
The bill, which passed 90-8, also had the support of President Donald Trump, who is expected to sign it into law.
Joining Lankford and Inhofe in voting no on the bill were Republicans Marsha Blackburn, of Tennessee, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Tim Scott of South Carolina, and Mike Lee from Utah.
Lankford, explaining his no vote on Facebook Live about an hour after the bill passed, said he felt there was a “better path” that would have been available later in the week.
“This vote came out today and I could not support this vote because I don’t know what this will do for small businesses in a very difficult environment for them,” Lankford said. “Our main goal is not just to have people not lose their job. It’s how can we keep people employed and keep payroll going as normal in a very abnormal season.”
Lankford said that while the bill would offer increased sick leave, that “a mechanism” was created in the bill that he feared would bog small businesses down in bureaucracy.
“What I’ve heard from lots of small businesses is that if this comes down, they’ll have to lay people off, that they don’t have a way to float extra cash,” Lankford said. “The question all of them ask me is ‘Is there a better way to do this?’”
Inhofe said in a media release that while it “is essential we provide economic relief for individuals and businesses suffering from the impact of the coronavirus,” the bill Wednesday would have made small businesses wait “weeks or months” before being reimbursed by the government.
“As a former small business owner, I know how tight margins are,” Inhofe said in his release. “These small businesses do not have weeks or months to survive — they’re barely hanging on right now.”
Inhofe said the proposal had “good intentions” but he feared it could make economic conditions “worse than they already are for small businesses.”
Inhofe’s office pointed to a 2018 “small business profile” that showed 99 percent of Oklahoma businesses were “small businesses” and that 52 percent of the state’s workforce are employed by small businesses.
Inhofe favored the Johnson amendment, which would replace mandated paid leave with a federally backed unemployment insurance fund.
The Johnson amendment, Inhofe said, “would have protected small businesses from having to find the cash to front sick leave.”
The Johnson amendment was voted down earlier Wednesday by a 50-48 vote.