GOP divided on next steps for massive stimulus package
Senate Republicans are divided over how to structure a massive stimulus package that could wind up costing nearly $1 trillion, likely slowing down how long it will take to get the relief bill to President Trump’s desk.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) pledged Tuesday that the Senate will not leave town until it passes the bill, but doing so will be a huge undertaking.
Republicans disagree over fundamental questions such as whether to make direct payments to Americans who miss paychecks because of the crisis or to all adults in a bid to boost the economy more generally.
They’re also split on whether economic aid should be delivered primarily through unemployment benefits for workers who miss time or lose their jobs or whether economic aid should go directly to businesses in the form of loans or payroll tax reductions.
Another contentious topic is how to help the airline industry, which has requested a $50 billion bailout. President Trump and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin favor a generous economic assistance package, but GOP lawmakers are calling for loans instead of direct payments.
“Everybody’s got their own idea,” Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) said after his conference met with Mnuchin and National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow. “Everybody wants to make sure we get the help out to people that need it. There are different ideas on how best to do it.”
In a sign of the difficulties to come, the Senate as of Tuesday evening could not agree on how to proceed to a vote on a much simpler $104 billion coronavirus relief bill already approved by the House. The $1 trillion package will be a tougher battle.
The Senate could wind up working into next week or longer to get Trump the giant stimulus package he has demanded. Lawmakers know it will have a major impact on the deficit and could be their last real chance to boost the economy. They want to make sure they get it right.
Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) are leading the charge for making direct payments to adult Americans, including those who don’t miss paychecks because of the coronavirus. They believe this will get money into the economy quickly and effectively.
Romney, who favors sending out $1,000 checks, says it will help families meet their short-term financial obligations and ease the burden on students entering the workforce.
Cotton has a slightly different idea. He wants the Treasury Department to cut tax-rebate checks of $1,000 for every adult tax filer making less than $100,000 per year and an extra $500 for each claimed dependent.
Mnuchin and Kudlow at a Senate Republican lunch meeting Tuesday proposed issuing $250 billion in a first round of direct checks and another $250 billion in a later second round if needed.
But that idea is running into powerful GOP opposition.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) says direct checks are “money wasted.”
“It won’t help the economy just throwing money at a problem,” Graham told reporters after the meeting. “I don’t know why giving a thousand dollars on top of their paycheck makes any sense now because there’s no economy to participate in. I’d rather take that money and shore up health care systems.
Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) on Tuesday said cutting the payroll tax makes “more sense” than “cash payments or this stipend idea.”
Braun, however, said he wouldn’t rule out supporting direct payments as long as they are limited to hourly workers affected by the coronavirus.
There’s also a debate over whether to bolster the economic safety net by increasing loans and grants to small businesses or broadening out unemployment insurance.
Braun, a former small business owner, says it’s better to beef up unemployment insurance benefits, but other Republicans are pushing for pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into direct assistance for small businesses.
Mnuchin on Tuesday proposed $250 billion in assistance for small businesses, according to Hoeven.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the chairman of the Senate Small Business Committee, and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who faces a tough reelection battle next year, are pushing for direct assistance to small businesses.
“There’s strong conviction and belief that we’re going to have to step up, using the local banks and all the banks to participate in a program guaranteed by the [Small Business Administration] to provide immediate cash availability to businesses in order to be able to maintain workers,” Rubio said.
Rubio said the administration wants to use an existing Small Business Administration loan program in which the government would guarantee loans to small businesses.
Collins is working with Rubio and Mnuchin on a plan to give cash-flow assistance to employers who agree not to lay off their workers.
Under her proposal, cash-flow assistance would be forgiven so long as employers keep their workers employed and paid.
Another thorny topic of debate among GOP senators is how to provide assistance to major corporations facing a cash crunch because of the coronavirus, such as the airline industry.
Mnuchin warned on Tuesday that airlines are in danger of grinding to a halt and said he has been in conversations “around the clock” with airline CEOs.
“We’re going big,” Trump told reporters Tuesday morning. “We don’t want airlines going out of business. We don’t want people losing their jobs and not having money to live.”
But Republican senators are warning they will not support a bailout of the airline industry similar to what happened in 2009, when President Obama’s administration pumped tens of billions of dollars into ailing banks during the financial crisis.
“A lot of us our against a bailout,” said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), who would back loans for the industry.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) said that any industry seeking significant economic aid should be ready to agree to concessions to bring jobs back to the United States.
“I will say this about industries who come to us and want significant relief: For those that have significant supply chains in China, I want to see some commitments they’ll move those supply chains out of China and back to the United States,” he said.
Asked what industries deserve rescue packages, Hawley said it should be evaluated on a “case-by-case basis.”
“What is the overall economic distress? What will it do for actual workers?” he said.