The Senate returns from its August recess Tuesday with no signs of progress on a new coronavirus relief package — and only days to reach a deal before lawmakers head back home to campaign.
Despite weeks of high-level talks between the White House and Democratic congressional leaders, a bipartisan compromise is increasingly unlikely before the election even as millions of Americans remain unemployed and the coronavirus’ death toll continues to rise.
Republicans are eager to raise the pressure on Democrats, but their latest gambit may fall short.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other top Senate Republicans have been scrambling to round up votes for a narrow economic stimulus package they could put on the floor and hammer Democrats for opposing. The $500 billion-plus proposal includes $300-per-week federal unemployment payments on top of regular state benefits, another round of funding to aid small and medium-sized businesses, liability protections for businesses, schools and charities, and $105 billion for education, among other provisions.
But some Senate Republicans want to include language related to “school choice” programs, complicating the process for McConnell and party leaders. As of now, McConnell doesn’t even have 51 votes for the Republican proposal, according to GOP senators and aides, let alone the 60 needed to overcome a filibuster.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and his Democratic colleagues remain opposed to the Republican initiative. They’ve joined with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in calling for at least $2 trillion in new spending, and Senate Democrats will block further action if it comes up for a vote this week.
“Our members are continuing to work and discuss ways to put our best foot forward on something in which we agree on,” said Sen. John Barrasso (Wyo.), chairman of the Senate Republican Conference. “To me it’s a targeted bill, targeted on specifically getting people back to work, getting kids back to school and getting the virus into the rearview mirror. And that’s where the focus is.”
“The problem is going to be the roadblocks from Schumer and Pelosi,” Barrasso added. “Pelosi is calling the shots, Schumer is just her deputy at this point and doing her bidding.”
Republicans may feel like some of the pressure has lifted to reach a quick agreement after a decent set of jobs numbers on Friday along with executive actions taken by President Donald Trump and administration officials. The actions include diverting tens of billions of dollars in disaster aid to go toward federal unemployment payments while also extending an eviction moratorium through the end of the year.
While both sides insist they want a compromise, neither is making any real concessions that would be needed to get there.
The only good news heading into the September session is that Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have reached a tentative agreement to continue funding federal agencies beyond the Sept. 30 deadline, taking the possibility of a government shutdown largely off the table. Some lawmakers and aides have discussed attaching relief provisions to a stopgap spending bill, but reaching a consensus there could be difficult.
McConnell told reporters in Kentucky last week that “I don’t know if there will be another package in the next few weeks or not… It’s harder to do now because we’ve moved closer and closer to an election.”
Some in the White House also don’t have a strong sense of urgency. Asked if he felt comfortable with the state of the economy if a coronavirus relief deal wasn’t reached, Trump economic adviser Larry Kudlow told Bloomberg TV, “We can absolutely live with it.”
Senate Republicans are privately playing up reports that moderate House Democrats are pressing Pelosi to compromise on a relief package. They’re circulating quotes from a dozen Democrats in swing House races calling for additional economic help for financially strapped Americans.
“I think a coronavirus relief package will probably help both parties because there’s a need,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in an interview. “I think this is one of the issues where I’m not so sure the political benefit is one versus the other as much as it is you know we actually need to do something.”
Pelosi, however, shows no signs of budging from her position. The House passed a $3.4 trillion bill in May, and Pelosi and Schumer agreed to come down more than $1 trillion from that figure during negotiations with Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows. But they don’t seem inclined to go much further.
“The White House and Senate Republicans have made clear that they still do not comprehend the scale of this disaster or the urgent needs of our communities and the American people,” Pelosi said in a statement on Friday. “House Democrats have come to the negotiating table willing to compromise, and we will continue reaching out until we achieve a fair agreement that meets the needs of all Americans.”
Senate Democrats from Schumer on down have slammed McConnell for sitting out talks on the coronavirus relief package. While the Kentucky Republican said the key is for the White House and Democratic leaders to reach a deal first, he’s also faced a challenge in balancing the competing factions within his own conference.
A large bloc of Senate Republicans, concerned about the tidal wave of deficit spending this year, believes the U.S. economy will recover without additional government aid. McConnell, however, also has a number of vulnerable GOP senators up for reelection in less than two months, and they’ve been pressing him for action.
Senate Democrats are largely counting on the endangered GOP incumbents to help push the Republican leadership toward an agreement.
“It’s still so hard for me to imagine Mitch McConnell packing up the Senate for the election home stretch having not even tried to negotiate in good faith,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “I’ve stubbornly stuck to this idea that Republican senators at the very least will be driven to get something done by their fear of backlash from voters.”