After a rush of bipartisan agreement and a historic stimulus package, members of the U.S. Congress are once again split along party lines over how to solve the coronavirus pandemic.

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The U.S. Senate is back to work this week, but senators are a long way from another round of COVID-19 aid.

Oregon Democratic Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden spoke with OPB “Morning Edition” host Geoff Norcross about what work remains to be done.

Geoff Norcross: How do you feel about going back to the Capitol amid the outbreak? The House isn’t even doing that.

Sen. Ron Wyden: "Obviously there are a lot of skeptics about this from a health standpoint, including from the medical staff at the Capitol, but look — there's some heavy lifting to do, and in particular what I'm focused on are our small businesses, our workers, our unemployment insurance package, and then health care providers.

Sen. Jeff Merkley: "It doesn't feel right that we are back here primarily because [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell [R-Ky] wants to put more right wing judges on the court. We should instead be completely focused on the challenges with the coronavirus. . . quite frankly, when the country is in crisis, why aren't we working on that crisis?

Norcross: Right now, there is no coronavirus legislation on the Senate’s agenda for the week. What is left for Congress to do on COVID-19? 

Merkley: "So much. The paycheck protection program, the main program for small businesses isn't working well, [and] it needs a lot more flexibility for those businesses. The distributions of support to state and local government are not working well — not only are the resources insufficient, but they haven't really flowed yet. We need a national strategy on testing and contact tracing, and without that we're not going to put an end to this crisis. A lot of people who are really hurting are going to see a lot of food impact — we need to strengthen the food support program. . .and our rural health system is suffering loss of revenues, and we haven't done enough yet to address that.

Wyden: "Personally, I think the top issues of ways to help are small businesses. I wrote the unemployment insurance package, [which would give] $600 a week, each week for the next four months. . .I'm looking at proposing a 'trigger' that would in effect tie future relief to economic conditions on the ground, and I hope I can get bipartisan support for it.

Norcross: The biggest sticking point on another round of stimulus help seems to be the question of whether businesses should be shielded from liability for coronavirus-related claims as workers return to their jobs. Do you see any middle ground on this topic?  

Merkley: "So the details of that [haven't] been fleshed out on both sides. But when it involves gross negligence — deliberately putting people at risk in ways you shouldn't because you put them too close together, [or] you didn't give them personal protective equipment — then no. The business should not be shielded from deliberately endangering their workers. But there's probably other forms of protection that if you followed the basic guidelines, that we can reach [an] agreement on.

Wyden: "I think obviously the key is to promote best practices, but there are hosts of ways to help the small businesses. For example, I'm focused on what I call the 'smallest of the small' businesses. These are people who are just having problems with liquidity. I've recently heard from small businesses in rural Oregon — these have to find ways to get modest amounts of cash to replace inventory, pay for lights — I'm going to be introducing senior members of the finance committee [to] legislation to let them do it.

Norcross: You’ve been pushing hard for national vote-by-mail. What would it take for that to happen? 

Merkley: "I'd use Oregon's model, our vote-by-mail [system] — or at least at a minimum, guarantee that you can get an absentee ballot. Every state has one. A no-excuse absentee ballot program across the country would go a long way to help out.

Wyden: "I think it's important to COVID-proof American elections, and Oregon of course has shown the way. Local Republican officials on the ground like [Gov.] Larry Hogan in Maryland and [Gov.] Mike DeWine in Ohio — they're breaking from Mitch McConnell, and they're saying that the health of their voters is more important.

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