Senate squabbles over coronavirus stimulus reach fever pitch

McConnell wanted to move quickly on the next stimulus bill, but senators have now missed four deadlines for a bipartisan deal

Reporters follow Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., as he makes his way to his office in the Capitol on Monday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Reporters follow Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., as he makes his way to his office in the Capitol on Monday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 23, 2020 at 7:41pm

Senators negotiating a nearly $2 trillion economic stimulus package to help individuals and businesses struggling through the coronavirus pandemic are working at warp speed for the world’s greatest deliberative body — but as they’ve blown past several self-imposed deadlines, tensions have reached a fever pitch.

“I’ve been here a while. This is the most outrageous behavior I’ve seen,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters Monday afternoon, leaving the floor after Senate Democrats for the second time blocked a procedural motion to get the clock moving on the legislation.

The Kentucky Republican’s comments also came after a partisan blowup shortly after the chamber opened at noon. After McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer concluded opening remarks, Sen. Susan Collins asked unanimous consent to dispense with a quorum call that had just started so she could be recognized for a speech. Schumer objected.

“This is unbelievable,” said Collins, a Maine Republican.

McConnell tried to make the same unanimous consent request, and Schumer again objected. Several Republicans loudly complained.

“Oh, c’mon, this is unbelievable,” Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton said, according to a pool reporter who was in the chamber. “This is bulls---.”

Collins crossed the aisle to confront Schumer, stood roughly a foot away from him, shaking her finger in his face and saying, “You are objecting to my speaking? This is appalling.”

Some additional arguing between the parties took place before Schumer was able to get the recognition he was seeking to ask McConnell about the voting schedule for the afternoon.

The Senate then voice-voted two procedural motions, and Collins got to speak during an hourlong debate before the roll call vote to invoke cloture on the motion to proceed, which failed 49-46. (Adoption of the motion requires 60 votes.)

Alabama Democrat Doug Jones joined Republicans in voting for the motion Monday after voting against it a day earlier, saying he wasn’t ready to support the bill but wants to “get this damn clock ticking.”

Jones, the most vulnerable senator up for reelection this cycle, called the floor theatrics before the vote “just embarrassing for everybody.”

“What the hell can you say? I mean, you saw what happened,” he said. “You think that that was a good look for the United States government, to see people acting like a bunch of kindergarteners sniping at each other? They need to be working.”

Senators have been working on the stimulus package — the third phase of the congressional coronavirus response — since passing a smaller economic measure Wednesday.

McConnell then wanted to move quickly on the next stimulus bill, so he set a Friday midnight deadline for senators to reach a bipartisan agreement that the Senate could pass as early as Monday.

Four missed deadlines

Senators were making progress Friday but blew past McConnell’s midnight mandate, as well his second, third and fourth deadlines of late afternoon Saturday, mid-afternoon Sunday and Monday morning.

Monday afternoon, after the second failed cloture vote, negotiations were so fraught that senators, mostly Republicans, took to the floor to complain about the breakdown.

“This is not the Senate that I came to 24 years ago,” Sen. Pat Roberts said.

The Kansas Republican cited a quote he has displayed on his desk from former President Lyndon B. Johnson that says “Sometimes you just have to hunker down like a jackass in a hail storm and just take it.”

“I’m tired of just taking it,” Roberts said. “I’m tired of the partisanship. … I don’t like doing this, but I have to warn my colleagues this so-called blanket of comity that we always have here in the Senate, it’s pretty thread-bare.”

Democrats accused Republicans of overreacting and said they were still working in good faith to get a bipartisan deal.

“We’re going to get this done today,” Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin said. “Take a breath. Everyone’s emotional and excited. But we’re going to get this done.”

Even McConnell emotional

Durbin’s assessment of the senators’ state of being was not off base. McConnell, arguably the most stoic lawmaker in the Capitol, has shown more emotion in the past two days than he probably has in the past two years.

After the first failed cloture vote Sunday, the majority leader was clearly angry.

“We’re fiddling here, fiddling with the emotions of the American people, fiddling with the markets, fiddling with our health care,” McConnell said, noting that if the Senate couldn’t act on Monday as planned “it will be because of our colleagues on the other side continuing to bicker when the country expects us to come together and address this problem.”

Then Monday after the Senate opened at noon, McConnell complained he woke up that morning to new asks from Democrats, such as solar tax credits and fuel emission standards for airlines, that had nothing to do with the coronavirus pandemic.

“Are you kidding me?” he said. “Democrats won’t let us fund hospitals or save small businesses unless they get to dust off the Green New Deal.”

McConnell said Democrats “ought to be embarrassed” — noting that he’d heard from some who said they are — “for talking like this is some juicy political opportunity.” He pointed blame at Speaker Nancy Pelosi for derailing the bipartisan progress senators had been making.

“Yesterday morning, the speaker of the House flew back from San Francisco,” McConnell said. “Then suddenly the Senate’s serious bipartisanship turned into this left-wing episode of ‘Supermarket Sweep’ — unrelated issues, left and right.”

Schumer, speaking right after McConnell, dismissed the majority leader’s complaints as a “partisan screed.” The New York Democrat noted he’d been busy in his office all morning negotiating with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and he was “hopeful, even confident” they’d reach a bipartisan deal that day.

But those negotiations hadn’t resulted in a deal before the 2 p.m. procedural vote. Afterward, McConnell accused Democrats of “mindless obstruction” and even indicated some frustration at Mnuchin for giving into their demands.

“The secretary of the Treasury keeps going into the Democratic leader’s office. The list keeps letting longer and longer and longer,” he said, his voice getting louder with each word. “The bazaar is apparently open on the other side.”

Pelosi interference?

Pelosi, meanwhile, moved ahead on her own, announcing that House Democrats had put together their own bill that “takes responsibility for the health, wages and well-being of America’s workers.”

The California Democrat had previewed the bill earlier in the day on a press call about the 10th anniversary of the 2010 health care law.

“We have striven to have this be nonpolitical, as nonpartisan as possible, as unifying as possible, as prayerfully as possible, but the president will not take responsibility,” Pelosi said.

While Pelosi was preparing to have the House vote on the measure if the Senate couldn’t reach agreement, her primary goal seemed to be to influence the other chamber’s negotiations.

Senate Republicans accused her of “interference” in their bipartisan process when they stayed out of the negotiations she led in the House over the first stimulus package. McConnell at a news conference Sunday noted that he allowed the speaker and the administration to negotiate that bill with “minimal input” from him — a clear dig at Pelosi for trying to take control of the phase three negotiations.

Maryland Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen said in a floor speech that Republicans blaming Pelosi was just “political rhetoric,” especially since she got the first two coronavirus response bills passed.

“It’s the Senate right now that can’t get its job done,” he said.

But Republicans were irate over the policies Pelosi was trying to inject into the latest bill.

“Nancy Pelosi is circulating a 1,400-page bill that she wants Congress to pass … that’s almost three times longer than our legislation,” Cotton said. The Arkansas Republican held papers containing proposals in Pelosi’s bill, dramatically reading their contents and tossing them one by one on to the Senate floor.

Senators acknowledged that their sniping wouldn’t win them any favors with the public.

“The American people do not want us to become partisan right now. That’s for sure. They don’t want bickering,” Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders said. “But it is incomprehensible to me that you got Republicans providing a wish list for corporate welfare for people who don’t need it right now. That is just disgraceful.”

As Monday — the day McConnell had hoped a final package would pass the Senate — started to come to a close, some senators said a deal did not appear to be close.

“Doesn’t look like it at the moment,” Majority Whip John Thune of South Dakota said. “I hope I’m wrong. I hope they decide to come together and that Democrats get serious and shorten their list of asks and become realistic, because that’s what it’s going to take.”

Jennifer Shutt, Niels Lesniewski, David Lerman, Mary Ellen McIntire, Katherine Tully-McManus and Tia Yang contributed to this report.