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Labor Secretary Walsh Discusses The Dueling Infrastructure Bills


All right, the counteroffer is in. Republicans have unveiled their infrastructure proposal to counter President Biden's nearly $2 trillion bill. The Republican plan increases the money that they're willing to spend on hard infrastructure - things like roads, bridges, water. But President Biden's bill also includes funding for things like fixing VA hospitals and the climate. And while the White House called the Republican plan encouraging, they're concerned that some key elements are still left out. Joining us now to talk about all this and more is Labor Secretary Marty Walsh. Welcome.

MARTY WALSH: Thank you for having me today.

CHANG: Thanks for being with us. So do you think this gap between what Republicans want to spend money on and what Democrats want to spend money on is anywhere within striking distance of eventually getting this bill passed?

WALSH: You know, I'm encouraged - the fact that there's a dialogue going on now. I'm encouraged that the Republicans in Congress are thinking about, you know, what it is that we need to continue to move our country forward. Clearly, people are hearing from the American people. The American Jobs Plan has a lot of great investment, infrastructure investment in people. And I think that, you know, this is going to be an ongoing conversation, dialogue.

The president is focused on looking at making sure that we do the best to make this a bipartisan bill. The members of the Cabinet that he has tasked with this role, we're all talking to everybody, Republicans and Democrats and everyone, about this. So, you know, I mean, it's an encouraging sign. Clearly, the president wants to see, you know, a lot of this jobs plan passed because it's great investments in people and livelihoods across the board.

CHANG: Well, why not just divide this bill into two parts like some Democrats are suggesting - pass the section on hard infrastructure first because there is bipartisan support for that, and then pass the second part later on items like child care or climate change?

WALSH: Well, I think at this point, everything is intertwined with each other. We're seeing as the pandemic, hopefully, is coming - hopefully nearing an end, we're seeing shortfalls in child care. We're seeing many industries that have been decimated by the pandemic with need for job training and more apprentice training. We're looking at more pipes and clean pipes, water pipes, broadband. It really - they're all companion pieces, and they all go together. And I think the - per my advice, the president will continue to stick together right now, continue to keep the bill moving forward because they all work off each other.

CHANG: OK. Well, to pay for this bill, Republicans want to repurpose COVID-19 relief funds that Congress has already approved for other projects. Do you think that's even a good idea? Do you expect that some of these COVID relief funds won't get spent anyway?

WALSH: You know, I was the former mayor of Boston...

CHANG: Right.

WALSH: ...Right before I became secretary of labor, and there's a lot of - you know, there's a lot of concern in cities and states across the country of lost revenue due to income tax, property tax and concerned about moving forward. These relief funds were voted on by Congress, and they were very intentional to make sure that they were able to make up some of the shortfall. Some of these funds go back to businesses within communities. I think the president's original plan for the corporate tax is still a very reasonable way of paying for these infrastructure improvements in these plans. The money from corporations would go back and benefit corporations with job training and everything else within the package.

CHANG: Well, what about unemployment benefits? About two dozen Republican governors plan to end pandemic unemployment programs early. What about, as some Republicans are suggesting, redirecting those unemployment funds that these governors say they won't spend anyway to help pay for this infrastructure bill?

WALSH: Well, I think if the funds aren't spent and people are back working, then we can have that conversation. But I don't necessarily think by - just cutting these funds off are the right way to go about. People are still out of work. People are still concerned about where they're going to go back to work. And, you know, a lot of conversations have happened that the $300 is keeping people out of the workforce. And...

CHANG: Well, many of these Republican governors say the supplemental benefits are discouraging people from looking for work. What do you make of that theory?

WALSH: Well, if you think of that mindset - we have about 8 million people as of today out of work in America - it'd be hard for us to feel that 8 million people are staying at home because they're getting an additional unemployment benefit. Most people that I've spoken to want to get back to work. They want to get back. They want to be able to - because unemployment's a short fix, if you will, or short term - helping people to be able to pay the bills. The long term - people want to get back to work.

And I think as we get through the next couple of months here as the pandemic - hopefully, we continue more people vaccinated and stop the spread of the virus - more and more people go back to the workforce. We saw big numbers in the month of April looking for work as compared to March. We saw the biggest gains in hospitality industry, which has been decimated during the pandemic. We've added 500,000 jobs a month for the last three months. So our economy's...

CHANG: Well, actually, businesses added only 266,000 jobs last month, which was far fewer than most forecasters had expected. What do you think it's going to take to get more people back to work?

WALSH: But the average - if you look at the average in the last three months, 1.5 million jobs were created. So you - that's why I did the average. I think we're going to start seeing - I think, you know, this - since the last numbers came out, the CDC has eased the mask ban in many states around the country, in many cities around the country. This weekend, Memorial Day, a lot of mask bans will be dropped there. More businesses are open. Restaurants are going to be open to full capacity soon. We're starting to see people travel, tourism.

CHANG: Right.

WALSH: So we're starting to see the impacts of, hopefully, the end of the coronavirus...

CHANG: Well, now, before I let you go, I do want to ask about the Boston police commissioner, Dennis White.


CHANG: You appointed him while you were mayor of Boston, and then shortly after that, allegations against him about domestic abuse surfaced. Did you know about these allegations before you appointed him?

WALSH: No, I didn't. And I made a statement on that last week. And those allegations were 25 years ago. And that's why when it was brought to my attention, I immediately brought in an outside investigator to look at the case. I was hoping to get this resolved before I left as mayor of the city of Boston.

CHANG: Do you feel that you should have known about those allegations before you appointed him to be the commissioner of the police in Boston?

WALSH: I probably should have - it probably should have been brought to my attention.

CHANG: At this point, do you regret the appointment of Dennis White as police commissioner?

WALSH: No, I'm going to let this go through. There's a process of the court proceeding going on. And, you know, I've been pretty clear on my statements as far as making the decisions I made and then bringing on outside investigators to look into the filings.

CHANG: That is U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh. Thank you very much for joining our show today.

WALSH: Thank you for having me today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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