If coronavirus relief talks are at a stalemate, as top administration officials and Democrats said this week, it may be a divided Senate GOP that set the first dominoes tumbling.
And it may take the threat of a partial government shutdown next month to get things back on track.
The next deadline to force action is Sept. 30, when Congress has to pass a continuing resolution to keep federal agencies operating at least through the November elections. Combining stopgap funds and pandemic relief into one bill could be a less painful vote for Republicans than separate votes on each.
"I think it would be better for Republicans, instead of taking two expensive votes, to take one expensive vote and make it a little more convoluted with the [continuing resolution]," said a GOP lobbyist who asked for anonymity in order to speak candidly. "Do a bunch of COVID stuff on a CR and call it a day."
Senate Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Chairman Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who helped write a major piece of the Senate GOP’s $1 trillion series of relief measures, told reporters Wednesday it was likely that negotiations bleed into the stopgap funding talks after Labor Day.
Blunt said a deal could be reached sooner if Democrats agreed to drop about one-third of the nearly $3.4 trillion House-passed relief bill, which he said “had nothing to do with COVID-19.”
Blunt’s GOP colleagues contributed to the impasse. Once Majority Leader Mitch McConnell publicly admitted he’d lose some 20 votes from his own caucus for the proposals he rolled out late last month, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer thought they had Republicans in checkmate.
“As you have seen from the majority leader, Mr. McConnell, they don’t have the votes,” Pelosi said on MSNBC on Aug. 5. “They have votes for practically nothing.”
The lack of a firm negotiating position and the vulnerability of GOP senators facing tough reelection battles would ultimately force Republicans to capitulate, the thinking went. But Pelosi and Schumer’s hard-line stance ultimately pushed Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, the GOP’s top negotiators, away from the table.
Two days after ridiculing McConnell on MSNBC, Pelosi was asked on the same network whether she and Schumer had overplayed their hand.
By then the White House had already set the stage for executive actions which President Donald Trump formally signed on Aug. 8 that could provide some modest relief at least into mid-September. That includes a $300 weekly unemployment benefit supplement funded out of disaster relief coffers, though some states are warning of delays in getting that program up and running.
Meanwhile, the stock market is up, jobless claims are down, lawmakers are home for the August recess, and Trump flatly predicted this week that “a deal is not going to happen.”
'Not finished with our country'
But there is acknowledgment among most Republicans and all Democrats that additional pandemic relief is needed. "Coronavirus is not finished with our country, so Congress cannot be finished helping our people," McConnell said Thursday before closing up the Senate until Sept. 8, unless any "unanticipated votes" are necessary.
Given that the price tag is likely to creep up — Pelosi and Schumer say they won’t agree to anything south of $2 trillion — McConnell could ultimately be faced with a difficult choice: whether to put a bill on the floor without a majority of the majority on board.
The stakes couldn't be higher so close to the elections, given Republicans could get the blame for any government shutdown as well as failure to provide pandemic relief if the Senate can't pass a bill.
The GOP stance is a stunning turnabout from five months ago, when the Senate passed a roughly $2 trillion aid package by a vote of 96-0.
David McIntosh, president of the conservative Club for Growth, a free-market advocacy group, said Republicans had voted for previous rounds of aid because something needed to be done to support the economy.
“But now people are realizing the biggest impediment to the economy is that things are not reopening that fast,” he said. “And they don’t really support Congress throwing another $1 trillion at it, especially because half the money they appropriated before hasn’t been spent.”
According to federal data through June 30, of the $2.6 trillion in total resources enacted since March, there’s $1.1 trillion that hadn’t yet been committed.
Some Republicans fear a tea party-like backlash against the trillions of dollars in spending Congress approved, said Robert L. Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a deficit watchdog group.
“I just think that they are very much afraid that their constituents are going to revolt over the size of the money that’s being spent,” Bixby said. “I think they’re going back and thinking about the summer of Obamacare, when there was a backlash against the Democrats.”
The August recess in 2009 turned hostile for Democrats as constituents expressed concerns about the new health care program, which became law in March 2010. Democrats lost 63 House seats and control of the chamber in the 2010 midterms.
Garrett Bess, vice president of governmental relations and communications at Heritage Action for America, said many conservatives have focused on “cultural” issues such as immigration during the Trump presidency. But that does not mean “any of their fiscal concerns ever melted away.” He said the $1 trillion Senate package led to a “breaking point” where spending restraint returned as a priority.
That camp includes conservative Senate stalwarts like Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas. Paul and Cruz have been GOP presidential contenders before, and are oft-mentioned as likely to run again at some point.
Their opposition to the McConnell package contrasts with another onetime and possible future presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who helped draft the small-business relief provisions with Maine’s Susan Collins, one of the most vulnerable GOP senators this cycle. Rubio has warned of a surge in small-business layoffs if Congress doesn’t approve more business loans.
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., another possible future presidential candidate, has also said more economic support is needed. That includes aid to cities and states to support overtime for police and hospitals and clinics, though Cotton opposes using federal dollars to “pay off long-standing fiscal mismanagement” by state and local governments.
Ron Johnson, R-Wis., a potential gubernatorial candidate in 2022 if he decides not to seek a third Senate term, told Breitbart News he was glad the relief talks had broken down, given the potential deficit impact. “It’s very good news for future generations,” said Johnson.
Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Mike Braun of Indiana, Rick Scott of Florida, James Lankford of Oklahoma and Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania are other Senate Republicans who criticized the GOP relief package in whole or in part. None of them are up for reelection this year except Sasse, whose seat is considered safe.
Arrayed against the spending hawks are advocates of a robust package, such as Collins, whose priorities McConnell needs to carefully manage given the implications for his party’s hold on the majority.
McConnell himself is in a surprisingly tough race against former Marine Corps pilot Amy McGrath, up by 5 points against his challenger in a Quinnipiac poll released last week. And races to watch extend into other deep-red states like South Carolina, where Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham was tied with Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison in the same Quinnipiac poll.
Graham was a vocal opponent of the $600 added weekly unemployment benefit that lapsed last month, saying in April it would be extended “over our dead bodies.” Graham filed an amendment last week to keep the benefit going at $500 a week, however, and eventually work out to 100 percent wage replacement as long as it doesn’t go over that $500 cap.
Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., along with Collins wants to provide the cash-strapped Postal Service with $25 billion to cover revenue losses. That’s a position in line with Pelosi and Schumer rather than Trump, who said Thursday the money would be used to deliver “fraudulent” mail-in ballots.
Daines and Collins are both in “Toss-up” reelection races this fall, according to Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales.