The Democratic Senator from Oregon - and new chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee - talked with Yahoo Finance's Jessica Smith to give the latest on where things stand on economic relief negotiations, his push for cannabis reform in 2021, and how might he might change your taxes from his new position.
JESSICA SMITH: Welcome to Yahoo Finance Presents. I'm Jessica Smith. Joining me now is Senator Ron Wyden, the new chairman of the Senate Finance Committee Mr Chairman, thanks so much for joining us.
RON WYDEN: Thanks for having me again.
JESSICA SMITH: Let's start with COVID relief President Biden has made it clear he's not budging on the $1,400 checks. But he's open to debating the income levels. At what income level do you think these checks should start phasing out?
RON WYDEN: Jessica, I support the thresholds that the President called for. And here's the point. People who got the first two checks are expecting a third. And the fact is the pandemic has hit these families like a wrecking ball. They're just balancing the food bill against a fuel bill and the fuel bill against the rent bill. And I have people coming up to me and saying, Ron, I'm going to use this money to make my car insurance payment. So I am for the original Biden proposal, the $1,400. The threshold-- we're going to have a pretty vigorous debate all the way through the process.
JESSICA SMITH: And lawmakers on the House side have proposed a new plan that would give parents up to $300 a month per child. Do you think you'd be willing to accept maybe a little less on stimulus checks or unemployment benefits if you have that beefed up child benefit?
RON WYDEN: I believe that the Senate proposal is the way to go offered by my colleagues Senator Brown and Senator Bennett. I know that the House continues to make adjustments. But here's the bottom line here. We need to significantly reduce the poverty that we're seeing with youngsters from sea to shining sea we're better than that. We're better than that. I'm committed to doing it.
JESSICA SMITH: What about the minimum wage hike? We heard from President Biden saying that he doesn't think this can get done necessarily through reconciliation. Do you think this is something that you can do through the reconciliation process?
RON WYDEN: I believe there are ways to get through the Byrd rule thicket. But here's the big issue here. We know that when we get vaccinations, the economy is going to pick up. I think we'll see workers come back to the workforce. Their wages will be up. They deserve a wage that allows them to pay rent, buy groceries, pay for essentials. I support the proposal.
JESSICA SMITH: Even if you do get through the Byrd rule issues, how do you convince someone like Senator Manchin or maybe a few other moderate Democrats to support this?
RON WYDEN: Well, as the sponsors have said, this would be phased in. You know, people have been wondering exactly how it would work, and some people. say, well, we can't do it in 20 minutes. It's phased in.
JESSICA SMITH: Bottom line, do you think, before we hit this unemployment benefit cliff in mid-March, that we're going to see a bill on the President's desk?
RON WYDEN: Bottom line is anything else would be absolutely unacceptable. To have those workers in the middle of March, because the benefit runs out March 14, fall into another economic abyss would just be wrong. And I'd also point out that I wrote the original unemployment package, which allowed for an extra $600 per week covering the new workers. gig workers, the self-employed, independent contractors, and that was at a time when we had fewer virus cases than we do now.
JESSICA SMITH: I know we've talked before how you want to stop these cliffs. You want to avoid these unemployment clips that we keep saying every few months. Do you think you're going to be able to get that done as Senate Finance chair?
RON WYDEN: I was very pleased that, at our urging, President Biden chose to make a specific note in his most recent economic statement when he was outlining the proposal that he wanted to get this done. He knows that it is absurd to just be plucking these arbitrary dates out of the air-- arbitrary, by the way, picked by Mitch McConnell so that Mitch McConnell will have more leverage over the debates. And it's time to tie the benefit to economic conditions on the ground.
And I've been talking to my Republican colleagues. They've said, look, Ron, we understand the need for a real benefit, the kind of benefits you're talking about when folks-- big numbers of folks-- are out of work. What's going to happen as the economy gets better? Well, under our proposal, the benefits then taper off,
JESSICA SMITH: I wanted to switch gears just a little bit to another issue that you're working on, and that's cannabis reform. You, along with Senator Booker and Leader Schumer, are working on this issue. Can you tell me what you hope to accomplish and where you stand on these discussions?
RON WYDEN: What we're trying to do is to end the failed federal policy on cannabis. And it starts with the prohibition. What we're talking about in our efforts-- the three of us, uh-- Senator Schumer, Senator Booker, and myself-- is we want to get rid of the prohibition, and then we want to have sensible regulatory oversight. We want to have sensible tax policy.
As the senior Democrat on the Finance committee, now the chairman, what I'm going to be focused on there is trying to help the small cannabis businesses with their kind of tax situation. I mean, in the past they haven't even been treated like other businesses. And I also want us to finally recognize the war on drugs has failed and expunge the records of so many people who are hurt by it.
JESSICA SMITH: You said your focus on the tax issues here, with Senate Finance, I mean, what kind of economic impact would this have if marijuana is legalized?
RON WYDEN: First of all, I'm not going to front run my colleagues. Senator Schumer, Senator Booker, and I have been talking to various organizations. We're still in the draft stage. But I always think that when you can legalize something like this where millions and millions of Americans have already voted that way, that can be a real plus for the economy. Certainly, it can be a real plus for small businesses, for communities of color, and that's how uh-- we're looking at it.
JESSICA SMITH: What are you hearing from your Republican colleagues on this?
RON WYDEN: My Republican colleagues are trying to reconcile some of the views that they've long had, which oh, we don't think we can support these efforts with the fact that their voters are way out in front of them. Their voters are saying, look, we're voting for this. Come around. It's time to change.
JESSICA SMITH: Another big item on your to-do list this year in the Senate Finance Committee is dealing with taxes. President Biden ran on raising taxes on the wealthy, on corporations. Where do you start?
RON WYDEN: You start with the fact, we've had two tax codes in America. What I'm telling people is you could have a nurse, for example, in Coos Bay, Oregon, on the beautiful Oregon coast, treating COVID patients. And that nurse pays taxes with every single paycheck-- every one. And then you have somebody who's really well-connected, has great lawyers, and great accountants, and to a great extent, their taxes are optional. They can really pay, to a great extent, when they feel like it. I want to change that. Everybody ought to pay their fair share.
JESSICA SMITH: So in the past, you've called for revamping the way capital gains are taxed. You-- your plan that you proposed in 2019 would tax unrealized gains each year for high earners. Is that something you're going to pursue this Congress?
RON WYDEN: Let me give you an example of what I'm talking about. We recently looked at some published reports and their data sets associated with it that said something like 600 billionaires recently, if they had been paying taxes during the pandemic at regular rates, the kind of rates that we have today, we pretty much could have covered the stimulus checks. So we've got to have a system that ensures that everyone pays. And it ought to give everybody in America the opportunity to get ahead. That's what I'm looking at.
JESSICA SMITH: So would that mean you would consider that mark-to-market approach again?
RON WYDEN: I certainly think that, for those who are billionaires, the tax code should not be optional. We're looking at a variety of different approaches.
JESSICA SMITH: Is Senator Warren's wealth tax one of those approaches? I know she said, as a new member of your committee, she's going to introduce that legislation.
RON WYDEN: Senator Warren has been a champ for working families, and her ideas are important. We've got a lot of members with important ideas. And look, Senator Warren shares my view that if you have a nurse you know, who's paying taxes with every single paycheck and you have people who are well-connected and they're, to a great extent, doing something very differently and not paying for long periods of time, that's not right.
JESSICA SMITH: With a 50-50 split in the Senate, do you think we should expect another reconciliation bill for the next fiscal year with the tax hikes in it?
RON WYDEN: Uh-- certainly, we've already been voting on that issue. I supported the Rubio Amendment. I'm not going to have tax hikes for the pandemic. I also support President Biden's proposal with respect to $400,000 I think those are going to be the key criteria.
JESSICA SMITH: My last question really quickly-- impeachment is getting started, the impeachment trial. Do you think there's any chance that 17 of your Republican colleagues vote to convict?
RON WYDEN: I'm a juror. So I'm not going to get in the position of predicting this or predicting that I know-- and I said this from the very beginning-- to have unity, to move on, you've got to have accountability. That's what this week starts
JESSICA SMITH: OK. Senator Ron Wyden, I think we'll leave it there. Thanks so much for joining us. We appreciate it.
RON WYDEN: All right. Thank you.