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Kentucky's Senate candidates talked to us about COVID-19 relief, health care and more

Posted at 5:34 PM, Oct 23, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-23 20:32:23-04

Democratic Senate hopeful Amy McGrath will spend the next two weeks campaigning at a breakneck pace. Her opponent, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, has won six terms in a row and holds one of the most powerful positions in the United States Congress.

A win for McConnell would mean another six years of national policy being shaped by one of the legislature's most conservative members. A win for McGrath would represent the first time in 36 years that McConnell had no formal role in deciding the country's future.

Speaking to WCPO, both candidates said they feel eyes on them from all over the country. And both want to win.

Here's what they had to say about some of the most pressing topics of the 2020 election and beyond.

On bipartisanship

“He has created a mess in Washington," McGrath said of her opponent. "That is a Senate, which was once the greatest deliberative body on Earth, (that) under his leadership has turned into a complete partisan, dysfunctional mess."

McConnell disagreed and characterized himself as a legislator who works effectively across the aisle.

“We have different points of view about what we ought to go forward on,” said McConnell of McGrath. “It’s noteworthy that the three biggest bipartisan deals during the Obama years, Vice President Biden and I negotiated: The 2010 extension of the Bush tax cuts for two years, the 2011 Budget Control Act and the 2012 Fiscal Cliff Deal. Joe Biden and I negotiated all of those in a time of divided government.”

On a new COVID-19 relief package

Both candidates agree on the importance of a new COVID-19 stimulus package, but they have significantly different opinions on how large such a package should be. The White House offered a $1.8 trillion relief bill as recently as Oct. 9. The Democrat-led House of Representatives has passed two separate bills of $3.4 trillion and $2.2 trillion, neither of which were taken up by the Republican-led Senate.

McConnell, as leader of the Senate's Republicans, has recently championed a "skinny" $500 billion relief bill that failed Wednesday in the Senate.

“The president wants it done," McGrath said of a relief package. "The House of Representatives have already passed the aid we need twice. And what is he doing right now? He’s ramming through a Supreme Court nominee with 10 days to go to the election.”

McConnell said Democrats, who described his bill as insufficient to address the ongoing crisis, are slowing progress.

“(It's) no small amount of money, which would target kids in schools, small businesses, the popular PPP loan program that was in the Cares Act," he said.

What would McGrath’s alternative plan look like?

“Mine would be right in alignment with what our current president wants right now, which is an effective $2 trillion package,” she said. “Which would provide aid for workers, extended unemployment insurance for people who are out of work for no fault of their own, would provide help for extended benefits for SNAP.”

She said Congress should give local governments more money and resources.

“State and local governments cannot run up the deficit by law," she said. "They’re hurting, and they’re hurting because of lack of revenue."

On health care during the next presidential term

When it comes to health care, some Kentuckians fear Republicans will take away protections for pre-existing conditions.

Both candidates say they don’t want that to happen, but they want changes to current laws governing health care and insurance practices.

“What’s clear here is the Democrats are unhappy with Obamacare,” said McConnell. “They’ve passed it. They’ve seen that premiums are up, copayments are up, deductibles are up, so now they want the government to take care of all healthcare.”

“It was a step in the right direction," McGrath said of the Affordable Care Act. "In Kentucky, it took our uninsured rate from 22% down to about 5%. He wants to throw it all away, spent the last 10 years trying to do that, couldn’t do it legislatively. So now he’s trying to do it in the courts.”

“I think there is zero chance the Supreme Court will strike down Obamacare anyway,” said McConnell.

McGrath voiced support for a public option that would serve people unable to afford private insurance.

“We need to have things like a public option," she said. "So that you, and anyone, any American could buy a nonprofit government plan, insurance plan, that would be affordable. It’s something that is deeply important to me as a Catholic, as somebody who went to Catholic schools and cares about social justice.”

On poverty in Kentucky

Kentuckians are among the poorest people in the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Locally, the mayor of Covington has said more than half of school children in his city do not have regular access to the internet.

McGrath said federal government can — and should — help change that. Fighting poverty and increasing access to technology, she said, has economic benefits as well as social ones; failing to do so has similarly wide-ranging consequences.

“Other areas of our country have been able to diversify. They've done it in education, infrastructure, broadband,” said McGrath. “You drive 25 minutes outside Bluegrass Airport, you lose cellphone coverage. There’s no broadband. No business is going to come to a county in Kentucky that cannot talk to them on the road.”

McConnell says he has worked to do that, pointing to efforts with communities in coal country.

“What I’ve been doing is taking care of their healthcare, their pension benefits and replenishing of the funds to retrain them for new jobs,” said McConnell.

He also said the first COVID-19 stimulus package is a symbol of his commitment to helping Kentuckians.

“$13 billion for Kentucky directly," he said. "And for a coal county like Pike County, for example, close to $20 million to help their hospital and the University of Pikeville.”

On what comes next

McConnell said his first priority in 2021 will be a vaccine for COVID-19.

“(We will) continue our rapid-speed effort to get a vaccine and kill this virus,” he said. “Because it’s hanging over the country, and we’re not going to be able to get back to normal until we get it.”

McGrath said she believes the country needs to make a plan for the meantime, tackling the economic and social challenges that will exist until a vaccine arrives.

“We can’t just sit there and wait for a vaccine,” said McGrath. “Too many more people will lose their homes, lose their health insurance and be kicked out of their apartment."