MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Another week, another round of staggering unemployment numbers - 6.6 million more Americans filed for unemployment last week. That is nearly 17 million total who filed in three weeks. And as unemployment spikes, Republicans and Democrats in Congress cannot agree on how to help the Americans they represent. Today, Senate Democrats rejected a GOP proposal to send additional money to small businesses. Democrats say they agree more money should be available to taxpayers, but lots of questions remain about where the first $350 billion they allocated are headed.
Well, joining me now is Sen. John Thune, Republican from South Dakota. He is among the highest-ranking Republicans in the Senate. We've caught him on the line from South Dakota. Senator, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
JOHN THUNE: Thanks, Mary Louise. Always nice to be with you.
KELLY: Glad to have you with us. So we had House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on the show last night laying out what she wants, what Democrats want, which as you know is to include an additional $250 billion for hospitals, states and local governments. And I just want to play you what she had to say and let you respond. This is her speaking about the Senate legislation as it currently stands.
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NANCY PELOSI: The bill that they put forth will not get unanimous support in the House, it just won't.
KELLY: Sen. Thune, if this is dead in the water in the House, and if Americans are desperate, why not agree to a $500 billion package?
THUNE: Well, I mean, I just think that amid the ongoing crisis in which we get both, you know, businesses and workers are clearly struggling, I think that - I'm disappointed that the Democrat leadership blocked what is critical funding to provide additional relief to those who need it the most. The point that they're making about other - wanting to add other dollars to other programs, we've already authorized dollars in other programs, none of which have been distributed yet. The first hospital dollars are actually going out today. So we don't know what we're going to need. We don't know what's working, what's not working.
What we do know is that the Paycheck Protection Program, which is the program designed to assist small businesses and help them keep their workers employed by giving them 100% guaranteed forgivable loans if they use them to keep their employees employed, is running out of money. And so this is a bipartisan program. It's one they actually support. And I think we need to get past any kind of partisan delay tactics. And the American people certainly don't want to see that.
KELLY: Is there a risk, though, if Republicans seem to be the ones advocating for less money at a time when many Americans feel financially desperate?
THUNE: Well, I think that - and I don't think it's a question of less money. I think we know already, I guess, that we've got, you know, we have checks going out. And there are - the president's talking about another round of those checks. We've plussed up the unemployment insurance accounts at all the states.
KELLY: It is less money, though. I mean, the Democrats want to spend an additional $250 billion. Y'all are saying no.
THUNE: They do, but they want to - the pots that they want to put it in are areas where we've already allocated huge amounts of money - 150 billion to state and local governments, a hundred billion - over a hundred billion to hospitals. And that money hasn't been distributed yet. And so they're saying, we want to add additional to this without even knowing what the need is. And what we're simply saying is, you know, let's let these dollars get out there. And then let's figure out and assess what the need is. And we're - I mean, our members are more than happy - we're going to do whatever we need to respond to this to get folks through it.
KELLY: Wherever this goes next, this is a huge amount of money at stake, upwards of - well upwards of 2 trillion already passed. The president has removed the inspector general tasked with overseeing how it is spent. Congress can't convene to hold oversight hearings. Where is the accountability?
THUNE: Well, I mean, there will be a person that steps in as inspector general. Obviously, there's not - that position is not going to be vacant.
KELLY: Does it concern you that that inspector general was dismissed?
THUNE: Well, I mean, I think we, the members of the House and Senate, might not always agree with the president's personnel decisions. But at the end of the day, these are all people that serve at his pleasure. And we want to make sure that that position's filled and it's filled with somebody who is a professional and not political. And so obviously we're paying a lot of attention to that. And some of our members have already expressed concerns about that move in a letter. And we will do the oversight. Sen. Grassley has forwarded a letter on there asking for an explanation about the decision. And...
KELLY: Mitt Romney's asked for one, Susan Collins - it's - yeah. It's a number of Republicans.
THUNE: Correct. That's right. So we'll do the oversight. That's our role. That's our job. And we'll try and get some answers.
KELLY: One election question, if I may, before I let you go. What needs to be done to make sure that every eligible American can vote, that every eligible American has access to a ballot in November, given the chaos that we saw unfolding in Wisconsin this week?
THUNE: Well, I guess we'll - we will have a better sense. The November election, the general election is a ways away. There are lots of primary elections that are happening in the next month or two. And those are, I think, state-by-state. They're figuring out what's the best way to make sure that those elections get conducted.
THUNE: But, you know, we have invested a lot of money with the states to make sure that they can conduct elections that are clean, that are free from interference. And my assumption is that by the time the fall rolls around and, you know, we're getting serious about a general election, that if somebody in this country wants to vote, they'll have the opportunity to vote.
KELLY: I suppose my question is, should Congress include voting access measures in any of these relief bills that y'all are saying need to pass?
THUNE: Well, I think there has been money added to the resources that we're putting out there - that we're pumping out there for the states to make sure that they can conduct elections and that they have all the necessary equipment and security measures, et cetera, to protect our election system and keep it free from interference. But I don't know that in, you know, in terms of the specific legislation the last couple of weeks that has been designed to respond specifically to the crisis, that there are measures in there other than additional funding for the states. We have, I think, a lot of very capable states who are focused on making sure that they have good, solid, clean elections where everybody has an opportunity to cast their vote.
KELLY: Sen. John Thune, Republican from South Dakota. Sen. Thune, thank you.
THUNE: Thanks. Nice to be with you, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.