Casey links COVID-19 relief, boosting economy as top priorities

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U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Jr. sees similarities between when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt first took office and the current early days of Joe Biden’s presidency regarding the volume of serious historic issues facing the United States.

Nine decades ago, the nation was in the grip of the Great Depression — poverty, unemployment, Dust Bowl drought.

Americans today are confronting the medical and economic impact of the almost yearlong COVID-19 pandemic, tense race relations, the impeachment of former President Donald Trump and fallout from the recent raid at the U.S. Capitol.

“Some of these issues are so big and so overwhelming that there’s not one way to attack them and not one way to deal with them,” Casey said during a Zoom meeting with The Tribune-Democrat editorial board last week. “We’re going to need help from all parts of society and obviously both houses, and both parties and two branches of government — frankly, every level of government — to attack them.

“There’s so much more work we’ve got to do. I’m not sure that any Congress or any administration has been facing a longer list of big problems than maybe at any time since March of 1933 when Franklin Roosevelt took the oath.”

Jurors and witnesses

Senators were sworn in last Tuesday, ahead of Trump’s second impeachment trial.

The former president faces one article, alleging “incitement of insurrection” that led to the fatal invasion at the Capitol, as a group of his supporters disrupted the Electoral College process being held to certify Biden as the winner of the 2020 presidential race.

Casey, a Democrat and Pennsylvania’s senior senator, compared this trial to the first time Trump was impeached, saying, “This will be different in a number of respects because a lot of the evidence is already in the public record,” referring to comments made by Trump during a speech in Washington and in the weeks leading up to Jan. 6.

“We act as jurors and took an oath (on Tuesday) as jurors, but we’re also witnesses because virtually every member of Congress was there on that day when the insurrection, the attack on the Capitol, took place,” Casey said. “I think one body of evidence, which we’re still learning more about, but we’ve learned a lot in the weeks after the attack, was the number of people in that attack who were seeking to kill or capture the vice president or the (House) speaker. The objective was to stop the counting of the electoral votes.”

Casey linked the impeachment and riot — which he described as “radicalized” with “a huge element of white supremacy” and “domestic terrorists” — to Trump’s claim that the election was stolen.

“Well, the first thing we have to do is tell the truth not just about the election, which was a free, fair and lawful election,” Casey said. “Joe Biden, Kamala Harris won. They carried Pennsylvania. And there’s no dispute about that on the facts. Now, if some choose to believe the president’s lie, that’s obviously a decision that people make individually. But there’s no evidence of widespread fraud. Everyone knows that.

“It’s not even a dispute about the facts. It’s whether or not you want to believe the president’s lying or not. But I think we also have to — even as we’re doing our best everyday to make it clear what our country is facing, still the worst public heath crisis in more than a hundred years, the worst economic crisis in many decades if not more than that — make sure that we’re delivering relief to people no matter what they believe about the election.”

Constitutional test

Last week, 55 senators — all Democrats, along with five Republicans, including U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey from Pennsylvania — defeated an objection that would have dismissed the impeachment as unconstitutional.

But that total is short of the 67 votes that would eventually be needed to convict Trump.

Questions have been raised by some Republicans about the ability to hold an impeachment trial for a president who is out of office.

“I think the weight of constitutional scholarship is on the side of the Senate being able to not just conduct a trial, but the appropriateness of conducting a trial of someone no longer in office,” Casey said. “Otherwise, we’re just telling future presidents, ‘You can do whatever the hell you want in the last couple of weeks or days of your presidency and nothing can stop you. You can do whatever the hell you want and then just resign in time and there’s going to be no accountability for you.'”

Tax code, minimum wage

Approximately 425,000 Americans have died from illnesses related to COVID-19. More than 25 million cases have been reported.

The spread of the virus and the accompanying mitigation efforts have created the biggest economic collapse since the Great Depression. Biden has proposed a $1.9 trillion stimulus plan to address the economic and medical impact of the pandemic.

“We’re facing a choice I think now and I think it’s akin to staring into the abyss,” Casey said. “We’re either going to tackle these two problems — the virus and the economy, or the virus and jobs — we’re either going to tackle them in the next six more months or we’re not.”

When asked about paying for the programs, Casey suggested looking at the nation’s tax structure.

“We’ve had a tax code, which for 40 years has been rigged, rigged for the rich, rigged for big corporations,” Casey said. “That has contributed to some of the divisions in our society. Families have trouble making ends meet. People have difficulty supporting their families on one income.

“If that means we have to say to rich people, ‘You’re going to pay more in taxes,’ sign me up for that. We were promised that if you gave rich people a lot of money in that obscene tax bill of 2017, if we gave rich people a lot more money through the tax code and if we gave corporations a permanent break in their corporate tax rate, that all would be well and that would somehow trickle down. That also was the lie.”

He also supports raising the minimum wage.

“A lot of these families that work long hours have not had a minimum wage increase in many years,” Casey said. “If it kept pace with inflation, it would be potentially a lot higher than $15. I think it’s possible — very possible, if not likely — that you could pass, as part of an increase in the minimum wage, other support for business as well.”

During the interview, he also referred to his “Five Freedoms for America’s Children” plan that calls for families to be healthy, to earn a living wage, to learn, to be safe from harm, and to be safe from hunger.

“The evidence shows overwhelmingly that one of the ways — not the only way, but one way — you can improve the prospects for the life of a child is to make sure that their mom or their dad has a higher wage,” Casey said.

Virus vaccinations

Biden pledged to get 150 million vaccination shots delivered within his first 100 days in office, with each person needing two shots to be considered fully vaccinated.

“That’s the right thing to do,” Casey said. “We’ve got to have a national goal. That’s not his goal. That’s got to be our goal — both parties, both houses, every citizen, any American who wants to get this done has to share that goal and say ‘we’ve got to get there.'”

Casey added: “I think President Biden has demonstrated the kind of leadership with regard to how to tackle the virus. The only way you can do that obviously is by having a robust vaccination program. He has spoken to it. And his words matter. And repetition of the words matter a lot when you’re the president. His focus on some executive actions early on have helped. But ultimately the success or failure of this vaccination program will rise or fall — I think — based upon this next bill. That’s why we have to get it right.”

Dave Sutor writes for The (Johnstown) Tribune-Democrat, which, like The Meadville Tribune, is owned by CNHI.