Tillis talks unemployment, PPP, RNC in North Carolina visit

Congress should come back early from its current summer break and get to work on negotiating a new round of coronavirus relief spending, North Carolina Republican Sen. Thom Tillis said at a stop in Raleigh Tuesday.

Some top priorities, he said, are bringing back unemployment benefits at $400 a week — instead of the previous $600 — and giving families and businesses extra help, in the form of cash payments to families and loans or grants to businesses through new Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, funding.

“We’ve heard a lot of stories where it saved a lot of jobs, saved a lot of businesses,” Tillis said of the $659 billion PPP. “And we’re working hard to get it back before the Senate to increase the funding for it, and to eliminate the politics for a program that, across the board, has gotten rave reviews.”

The previous $600-per-week federal unemployment benefits stopped at the beginning of this month, with Congress taking no action. Democrats wanted to bring them back but Republicans said it was too much money and might convince people not to look for work. With Congress deadlocked, Trump authorized new benefits of $400 a week, including a state match. His administration has approved North Carolina’s application for the $300 federal portion of the money.

Tillis said his Senate GOP colleagues could get on board with a benefit of up to $400 a week, even if they had concerns about $600 a week.

“That, along with economic assistance payments — which I support — should be enough to get people along,” Tillis said. “Particularly as we start safely reopening.”

Those economic assistance payments appeared to refer to a second round of stimulus checks like the $1,200 cash that the government paid many families earlier this year. CNBC, however, reported last month that Democrats and Republicans agree on the general idea but not on details like how much the checks should be or who should qualify for them.

Tillis was not at the Republican National Convention in Charlotte on Monday, where members of his party gathered to re-nominate President Donald Trump for a second term in office. He has said he would be in Washington on Thursday when Trump formally accepts the nomination at the White House.

Some of his fellow senators are speaking, portions of the convention were held not far from Tillis’ home in the Charlotte suburb of Cornelius, and he’s facing a close re-election campaign this fall against Democratic former state legislator Cal Cunningham. But Tillis said he has no hard feelings over not being given time to address an audience of conservatives around the country.

He referenced some of the non-politicians who are speaking, like the St. Louis couple who made national news for drawing guns on protesters who came into their neighborhood, and said he’s glad the RNC is putting “everyday people” on screen and “not just a stream of politicians with all these prepared statements.”

As for the politicians who are speaking, Tillis commended his colleague Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina. Scott spoke Monday night, and Tillis said Scott is “working hard to listen to those peaceful protesters who should be concerned with the senseless deaths of individuals as a result of a police interaction.”

Instead of giving his own speech, Tillis has been traveling around the state holding meetings. That included Tuesday’s sit-down with half a dozen influential players in the state’s restaurant industry, just outside the wine cellar at The Angus Barn, a Raleigh steakhouse.

In addition to asking for more PPP money, they also had requests like loosening up the coronavirus health rules that restaurants are facing. Some of them bemoaned a lack of quality “contact tracing” efforts in North Carolina to determine exactly when and where coronavirus patients got infected — but they claimed that in other states with more extensive contact tracing programs, it doesn’t look like restaurants have been to blame for outbreaks.

“I’ve not heard of a single case of someone (getting coronavirus) from dining in a restaurant,” said Lynn Minges, the head of the state’s main restaurant lobbying group, the N.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association.

The News & Observer reported in June that by one estimate, North Carolina only had about one-fifth the number of contact tracers that the state would need to adequately keep up with new cases.

Sen. Thom Tillis demonstrates both effective and ineffective ways to wear a face covering while leading a roundtable discussion on the Paycheck Protection Program with members of the restaurant and hospitality industry Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020 at the Angus Barn in Raleigh. Tillis says he has been a proponent of wearing face masks since the CDC recommended the practice in April. Travis Long tlong@newsobserver.com

Tillis encouraged people to wear masks — and to do so properly, covering up their nose too, not just their mouth. He said even people who don’t think they will get coronavirus should wear masks anyway, to try to stop the spread and help prevent businesses they visit from getting sued, in case of an outbreak.

He also spoke about other things he thinks Congress can come to some sort of bipartisan deal on — namely increased spending for education, child care and research into a coronvirus vaccine. But he came out against the idea of Congress helping bail out state governments who are facing a budget crunch due to the coronavirus recession, which North Carolina Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has asked for. Tillis said it would mostly help blue states like New York and California.

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Will Doran reports on North Carolina politics, with a focus on state employees and agencies. In 2016 he started The News & Observer’s fact-checking partnership, PolitiFact NC, and before that he reported on local governments around the Triangle. Contact him at wdoran@newsobserver.com or (919) 836-2858.

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