McConnell takes reins of third coronavirus bill
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is coming back to the negotiating table as lawmakers try to craft a mammoth stimulus package.
The GOP leader and his caucus were sidelined during the negotiations between Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), which resulted in several Senate Republicans vocally opposing the $104 billion package.
Now, the GOP leader is keeping a tight grip on the formation of a third coronavirus package that could top $1 trillion amid growing concerns that the spread of the virus could bludgeon the economy.
“We need to be in the game when some of these decisions are being made and try to influence and shape the policies,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), McConnell’s No. 2.
“We want to have obviously some of our members get their ideas into the mix,” he added.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), an adviser to McConnell, characterized the strategy as aimed at building “consensus” and eliminating “misunderstanding.”
“I just think that’s a logical approach to me. It wouldn’t make any sense for him to negotiate with Speaker Pelosi and then get something that he couldn’t get Republicans to agree to,” he said.
The decision is a hard shift from how the second coronavirus bill came together, when McConnell said that he was deferring to Mnuchin to negotiate with Pelosi. The Treasury secretary and House Speaker have become a crucial pair of dealmakers in an increasingly divided Washington; they also clinched deals on the budget and funding the government.
“I think that the secretary of the Treasury’s going to have ball control for the administration, and I expect that will speak for us as well, and we’re hoping that he and the Speaker can pull this together,” McConnell said before the two reached their deal.
The end result was a bill that was panned by several Senate Republicans who felt like they had been left out of the negotiations.
“Right now, the plan around here is basically just to start shoveling money out of a helicopter, and the most important debate is whether Democrats or Republicans get to shovel the money first,” said Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), who was one of eight Republicans who voted “no.”
McConnell acknowledged that some Republicans were unhappy. Republicans briefly considered merging the second and third packages but were worried about slowing down the bill given the economic turmoil and spread of the virus.
“My counsel to them is to gag and vote for it anyway even if they think it has some shortcomings and to address those shortcomings in the bill that we’re in the process of crafting,” he said.
McConnell told reporters repeatedly during a press conference this week that the process for the third coronavirus package will start with Senate Republicans, who would then negotiate with the administration. Once they have an agreement, they will then start negotiating with Democrats, whose support will be needed to pass something through the House and Senate.
“First, Senate Republicans and the administration are going to try to reach an agreement on what we think is best for what could best be described as phase three. Then, the Senate being the Senate, we will sit down with our Democratic counterparts and see what we can agree to,” he said.
Pressed on why he wouldn’t reach out to Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), he added, “I think the best way to proceed is the way I outlined. Then, we’ll have a clear indication of where most of the Republicans are, and we’ll sit down and talk to our colleagues on the other side of the aisle and reach an agreement.”
There is some communication with Democrats — just not from McConnell. Mnuchin has been in touch with both Pelosi and Schumer about the third phase of the legislative response to the coronavirus.
“Schumer spoke with Secretary Mnuchin yesterday afternoon via phone about the third phase of the coronavirus bill and Schmer’s people-focused proposal,” a spokesman for Schumer said.
Schumer is offering his own $750 billion proposal that includes $400 billion toward programs related to pandemic response, $300 billion toward a “social safety net,” and other policy changes such as a moratorium on foreclosures and evictions.
He knocked McConnell for taking a GOP-only approach, arguing that it would only delay a final bipartisan deal.
“The plan leader McConnell laid out will slow things down in a significant and dramatic way, and it doesn’t start out in a bipartisan way, and above all, this should be bipartisan,” Schumer said.
But McConnell has created four task forces to draft and negotiate the third coronavirus package: health, tax, small business and industry bailout.
He offered an outline of the efforts underway: Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) are working on assistance for small businesses; Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is spearheading the tax angle; Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) is exploring how to bolster the public health response, including the development of vaccines; and Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) is looking at impacted industries.
Senators involved in the groups, including key committee chairmen, presented their progress during a closed-door lunch on Wednesday and are expected to turn over their work product by Thursday. Among the ideas being batted around by Senate Republicans are cash assistance for Americans, expanded unemployment and help for impacted industries such as airlines.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), another member of GOP leadership, added that the strategy was reflective of Republicans wanting a larger role after deferring the second coronavirus package to Mnuchin.
“He wants to know what our bargaining position,” he said of McConnell. “There’s [also] an interest on the part of our members to be more involved in this discussion than we were in the last couple.”
And the GOP leader wants to move a third coronavirus bill, in his words, at “warp speed.”
GOP senators are hoping to vote as soon as this weekend but at least by next week, underscoring the pressure they are under to move quickly to reassure both constituents and the market.
Minutes after the Senate passed the second coronavirus package, McConnell made it clear he wanted senators to stay around even though the scheduling for next votes is in flux.
“We’ll continue to work on the next bill to respond to the crisis, and I want to repeat again: The Senate’s going to stay in session until we finish phase three,” he said.
“Republicans hope, shortly, to have a consolidated position, along with the administration, and we intend to sit down with our Democratic colleagues … and I would recommend senators stay around, close,” he said. “Just how long it will take to get through these steps is unclear, but as everyone knows, we are moving rapidly because the situation demands it.”