Coronavirus package hits roadblocks amid GOP opposition
The House-passed coronavirus package is quickly running into roadblocks, throwing into question the bill’s timeline for reaching President Trump’s desk.
House lawmakers passed the bipartisan deal early Saturday morning after around-the-clock negotiations between Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and a late endorsement from Trump.
But that’s done little to guarantee its smooth path to the White House as it faces eleventh-hour fixes and opposition from some Republican senators, either of which could complicate and slow the bill’s arrival and passage in the Senate.
The challenges facing the House bill are twofold. First, House Democratic leadership and the Trump administration had to iron out technical changes to the legislation. They had hoped to clear them in the House on Monday but as of 7 p.m. were still waiting.
With the House out of town, and its return date uncertain, any agreement will need to clear that chamber by consent, something it’s not clear leadership has at the moment.
Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) wants a series of technical corrections to the House-passed bill to be read on the House floor before he will let it move to the upper chamber, according to House aides representing both parties.
“He’s concerned and wants all of the changes to be made public before the vote,” one GOP aide with knowledge of the situation told The Hill.
If Gohmert isn’t satisfied, he could stall the revamped House coronavirus bill until Pelosi is able to bring the chamber back to Washington to vote a second time.
“I cannot in good conscience give my consent to something that has not been finished or made available to members of Congress before it is up for a vote,” Gohmert told CNN about the holdup.
The measure, which passed 363-40 on Saturday, includes provisions that would ensure some workers can take paid sick or family leave, bolster unemployment insurance, and guarantee that all Americans can get free diagnostic testing for the coronavirus.
One potential hurdle was resolved Monday when Senate GOP leaders cut a deal with privacy hawks to extend three USA Freedom Act provisions for 77 days and allow for a handful of amendment votes once they take up the deal that passed the House last week.
The Senate had been expected to take up the House bill, which pairs an extension of the intelligence programs with some changes to the court established by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
Instead, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced minutes before the vote that they had cut a deal. Without the agreement, opponents to the House bill could have dragged out the Senate’s debate until near the end of the week.
“We’re working on trying to process both of these measures. Those discussions have been underway over the weekend, and we’re hoping to move with dispatch on both the House-passed bill, once we get it, and some way to move forward with the FISA issue as well,” McConnell told reporters.
Senators in both parties had urged leadership to agree to a short-term extension so they can focus on the coronavirus package.
“The FISA program can also be extended with Senator [Mike] Lee’s [R-Utah] proposal for a 45-day extension and future consideration of the House bill with six amendment votes. That could all be done by [unanimous consent] as well. Given this pandemic, time is of the essence and we should not delay,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said in a statement.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, indicated that he could support a short-term extension.
“If the alternative is staying dark, I’ll take an extension,” Warner said.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) added that the FISA program needs broader reviews and that the Senate should instead pivot to the coronavirus legislation.
“FISA needs to be carefully reviewed. That takes time. That can wait. The emergency response to #coronavirus should be the first order of business in the Senate tomorrow. There is no reason for this to take days & days,” Hawley tweeted on Sunday.
But the bigger hurdle for McConnell could be calls from within his own conference to make changes to the House-passed coronavirus package. Any amendments would bounce the bill back to the House, which left town on Saturday. House leadership told members on Monday that they should not expect to return to Washington on March 23, indicating they will stay out of town until a third coronavirus deal is reached.
But several GOP senators say they do not believe the House bill does enough to protect small businesses or provide an influx of cash directly to Americans who could struggle to cover short-term costs as coronavirus concerns have roiled the economy.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) told Fox News on Monday that he doesn’t think the House bill will clear the Senate without changes.
“I and a lot of the other senators who I’ve spoken to over the weekend are worried that we’re not doing enough to get cash in the hands of affected workers and families quickly, so we’re going to be focused this week on how to do just that,” Cotton said.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) also signaled opposition to the House bill during an interview with a Wisconsin radio station WTMJ on Monday.
“Nancy Pelosi is going to make businesses give paid leave when people aren’t working. The businesses are going to pay for that,” Johnson said.
And Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) indicated he wants to get additional small-business provisions into the House bill.
Republicans are under pressure to pass legislation quickly. The stock market cratered on Monday, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropping nearly 3,000 points.
But Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said he wants a vote on an amendment to pay for the House-passed package.
“If they allow us an amendment, we’ll allow them to do it more quickly,” he said.
Democrats have spent days hammering McConnell for letting the Senate leave Washington late last week before waiting to see if House Democrats and Mnuchin would be able to strike a deal.
McConnell, in an apparent bid to tamp down the calls for changes, stressed in a statement and again on the floor Monday that the second coronavirus package would not be the last legislative action taken by the Senate.
“Senate Republicans are absolutely convinced that the House’s bill can only be the beginning of Congress’s efforts to secure our economy and support American families,” he said. I’ve spoken with countless colleagues and committee chairmen over the last several days.”
Trump appeared to add new fuel to calls for the Senate to make changes instead of waiting until the third legislative package. He told reporters during a press conference Monday that the bill might need to go back to the House.
Senate Republicans, Trump said, “may make” the House bill “even better.”
“We may go back and forth with the House a little bit,” he said.