Capitol Insiders Survey finds staffers pessimistic on virus relief

The poll asked aides if they foresaw a COVID-19 aid bill before Joe Biden takes office; only 1 in 4 of the 96 respondents did

Lawmakers gather on the House steps during the last votes of the week on Friday, Dec. 4, 2020.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Lawmakers gather on the House steps during the last votes of the week on Friday, Dec. 4, 2020. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted December 7, 2020 at 7:00am

ANALYSIS — In the waning days of the 116th Congress, after reflecting over a Thanksgiving break, lawmakers changed their tone on virus relief. 

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer sent a secret compromise offer to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell

McConnell conferred with White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, then circulated a proposal to the Senate Republican Conference based on what he said President Donald Trump would sign.

A bipartisan group led by Sens. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, offered a compromise that split the difference between the $2.2 trillion that Democrats have demanded and the $300 billion in new spending that Republican senators most recently offered. Then Pelosi and Schumer said they’d be happy to use it as the starting point for negotiation.

The caustic tone that plagued the debate about appropriating more money to fight the virus before Election Day softened. Lobbying groups for crumbling industries, from hoteliers to restaurateurs, ramped up their pressure campaigns.

Amid this new promise, however, the underlying disagreement on how much to spend remains. And the quest for a deal may, in fact, be more fraught if it’s true that Trump now has a more constricted view of what a relief bill should include. 

Before the election, the president, desperate to boost his chances of winning another term, nearly met Pelosi’s $2 trillion demand. Now, it seems, Trump will not sign a bill even as generous as the $1 trillion measure McConnell offered in July.

The latest edition of CQ Roll Call’s Capitol Insiders Survey, a poll of congressional staffers, confirmed that the obstacles to deal-making have yet to make way. Emailed on Nov. 30, the poll asked if the aides foresaw a virus relief bill before President-elect Joe Biden takes office. Only 1 in 4 of the 96 respondents did. Meanwhile, nearly 44 percent said they anticipated no additional relief, with the rest undecided.

The aides had till Dec. 3 to fill out the poll. Of the respondents, 51 said they were Democrats, 45 Republicans and one independent.

Undergirding the aides’ pessimism is the reality that Republicans and Democrats view the gravity of the situation very differently.

More than half of the GOP respondents, for instance, believed that Congress has fought the virus, and its economic fallout, either very or somewhat effectively. By contrast, only 31 percent of the Democrats were as positive about the fight against the virus, and even fewer, just 20 percent, said as much about Congress’ aid to people hurt economically by the lockdowns.

This was obvious all last week on Capitol Hill. “The needs of people are desperate, desperate, desperate,” Schumer said in arguing for a more generous response.

Republicans responded that the Democrats’ past proposals, from the $3.4 trillion bill that the House passed in May to the $2.4 trillion one that Democrats offered in October, went well beyond the pandemic and the economic problems it caused. They said the bills amounted to bailouts for Democratic states that had mismanaged their budgets, and particularly their pension plans for state workers, long before the coronavirus struck.

“We need a targeted relief bill, including things that we can agree on,” McConnell repeated, offering that Democrats could make the case for more in January when Biden takes office.

Before the election, the dysfunctional relief debate made a modicum of sense. Democrats didn’t want to hand Trump a victory, and a chance to write another round of $1,200 checks to most Americans, since that might have won him another term.

Absent that context, their refusal to accept a smaller relief bill sounded off-key. They always could have taken a deal, then gone for more after an election that they expected to yield Democrats more power.

Republican senators, feeling prideful on the eve of what they were also expecting to be a Democratic wave, weren’t about to hand out billions to blue states.

The election’s resolution offers an opportunity to reconsider, but lawmakers aren’t there yet.

If Pelosi and Schumer are now willing to accept a figure closer to the $908 billion proposed by Manchin, Collins and their bipartisan group, it’s a major concession. And it will require Democrats to ingest a plate of crow, considering they rejected more generous offers from Trump and the Problem Solvers Caucus in the summer and fall.

McConnell continued to blame Democrats for the impasse but also hinted that Trump was part of the reason. “I like to remind everybody that the way you get a result is you have to have a presidential signature, so I felt the first thing we needed to do was to find out what the president would in fact sign,” he said at his Dec. 1 news conference.

It struck a discordant tone, considering that Trump, via Mnuchin, had already engaged in lengthy negotiations with Pelosi before the election, reportedly offering $1.8 trillion in early October. Later that month, McConnell warned Trump that such a deal would divide Senate Republicans and pressed the president not to continue his pursuit of a deal.

Is a retrenchment on funds to fight the virus and aid the American people just another part of Trump’s post-defeat fit of temper? It seems so. 

Schumer fretted that Trump’s latest offer was no more generous than the GOP’s “skinny bill,” with its $300 billion in new spending, that Senate Democrats rejected in September. And he noted that it did not include enhanced unemployment benefits, even though Mnuchin in October had offered $400 a week in additional relief to the jobless to run retroactively from Sept. 12 till Jan. 1. The skinny bill would have provided $300 a week in enhanced unemployment benefits through the end of December.

Republican senators are split on the level of aid that’s needed. It’s widely thought that as many as 20 don’t want to spend much more at all, believing the $3 trillion appropriated in the spring to be sufficient. Then there are some, like Utah’s Mitt Romney, who said on Dec. 1 that it was “simply unacceptable” not to do more. He signed on to Manchin and Collins’ $908 billion proposal, only $348 billion of which is new spending, with the rest repurposed from the spring’s virus relief legislation.

And though Election Day resolved most of the political questions, it did not resolve all of them. Georgia voters must decide who will represent them in the Senate in two runoff elections on Jan. 5. If Democrats win both seats, it will strengthen their hand in further virus relief negotiations. In fact, through the budget reconciliation process, they could appropriate more aid without a single Republican vote.

And in Georgia, the Democratic challengers, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, are hammering the GOP incumbents, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, for the failure to pass a virus relief bill. If one were to pass this month, it would take away one of their best arguments.

Democrats are expecting that analysis will help them convince GOP senators to up their offer. “I would not assume that everyone will go down the path of Mitch McConnell this time,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said of her Republican colleagues. “Some people are willing to cross over to get something done.”

But if their staffers are reflective of their bosses’ views, most Republicans don’t see Perdue and Loeffler losing in Georgia. Asked what they thought would happen, 86 percent of the Republican respondents said both GOP senators would prevail, with 14 percent predicting one would. Not a single GOP aide foresaw a Democratic sweep.

The Democratic staffers were more hopeful but still saw the odds working against them. Only 1 in 4 predicted Ossoff and Warnock would win, with one-third expecting a split verdict and the remaining 40 percent resigned to defeat in both races.

Democrats’ willingness to reduce their demands, after long insisting that anything less than a multitrillion-dollar figure would be inadequate to the country’s needs, is a recognition that a failure to act now will only further pressure Biden. That at a time when the president-elect has already got a lot to worry about, from confirmation votes for his Cabinet to vaccine distribution logistics to the possibility of a double-dip recession.