Pressure for quick action on next relief bill strains GOP unity

The pressure on Congress to act swiftly on another round of coronavirus relief is creating tension among Republicans.

While some GOP lawmakers are seeking to hold back, at least for now, on charging forward with another massive economic package, others such as Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) are calling for a rapid infusion of federal aid costing trillions of dollars.

At the state level, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland, the chairman of the National Governors Association, is spearheading a push for an additional $500 billion to states.

But other GOP voices such as Sen. John Kennedy (La.) want to speed up the timeline for reopening the U.S. economy instead of having U.S. taxpayers supplant the role of private employers.

The backdrop to the debate is a federal spending splurge that threatens to push the federal deficit to $3.6 trillion by the end of the fiscal year in September.

The Trump administration and Senate Republicans agree that Congress needs to approve at least another $250 billion for the broadly popular Paycheck Protection Program, a small-business lending program that will forgive loans to employers who keep workers on payroll. The initiative was allotted $349 billion late last month.

But what the next steps should be is a contentious subject.

Hawley made a splash this past week with an op-ed in The Washington Post calling on the federal government to immediately start covering 80 percent of wages for workers at any U.S. business, up to the median wage, for as long as the crisis lasts.

He also proposed a bonus for businesses that rehire workers laid off over the past 30 days.

“I think that we ought to help cover the payroll of every worker in the country so we can get them back working, get them back to their job, get them back to their business, so that when we open this economy up we’ll be ready to boom,” Hawley said Friday on “The Marc Cox Morning Show.”

Such a bold government intervention quickly drew opposition from his fellow Republicans.

“I think it’s way too broad. I think a much more focused approach is needed,” said former Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who once chaired the Senate Budget Committee and served as an adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) leadership team.

Gregg, who is an opinion contributor to The Hill, said it’s better to wait and see how the $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief package, which became law on March 27, plays out. He said the Treasury Department is taking the right approach by targeting loans and loan guarantees to employers who need it most.

“I think what they should do now is basically stand by,” he said. “They should be ready to pass another initiative, but I don’t think they need to pass it immediately.”

Some GOP lawmakers are more focused on lifting restrictions so that businesses can reopen across the country.

“We got to get this economy back open,” Kennedy told Fox News host Sean Hannity. “I’m not talking about opening it Monday. But we’ve got to get this economy open. Government shut it down.”

McConnell and his leadership team have endorsed the wait-and-see approach.

The GOP leader said on the Senate floor Thursday that he could support more money for hospitals and health care providers “down the line” but argued Congress needs to see “the existing funding begin to work before we know what additional resources are needed.”

He says Congress should focus first on patching up problems and oversights in last month’s $2.2 trillion measure, which was hastily negotiated in less than a week with McConnell, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

“The country needs us to be nimble, to fix urgent problems as fast as we can, to be able to have focused discussions on urgent subjects without turning every conversation into a conversation about everything,” McConnell said Thursday. “We need to patch holes as we see them and keep moving forward together.”

The GOP leader noted that Schumer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) are pushing for more money for state and local government budgets when “literally no money has gone out the door yet.”

The legislation, which became law a little more than two weeks ago, gives the federal government 30 days to disburse funds to state governments.

Democrats say a phase-four coronavirus relief package should be at least $500 billion — double the small-business infusion McConnell sought on Thursday. But it’s not clear if the GOP leader’s preference for slowing legislative action is supported by Mnuchin.

Schumer announced Friday that he thinks a deal with the Treasury secretary is possible early this week.

“I had a constructive call with Secretary Mnuchin this morning during which he agreed to pursue bipartisan talks with the leadership of House and Senate Democrats and Republicans on interim Emergency Coronavirus Relief legislation,” he said in a statement.

“There’s no reason why we can’t come to a bipartisan agreement by early next week,” Schumer added.

Schumer’s statement indicated he’s interested in a four-person negotiation between the top Republican and Democratic leaders in the Senate and House. McConnell rejected that format last month ahead of the negotiations on the phase-three bill.

The GOP leader preferred for the negotiations to take place primarily in the Senate, keeping Pelosi at a distance, even though she is in regular contact with Schumer

Republican senators, however, want direct involvement in the talks, and some are skeptical of Mnuchin’s commitment to conservative principles, especially after he negotiated the second coronavirus relief package almost entirely with Pelosi.

GOP lawmakers such as Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) were furious that Mnuchin agreed to mandating two weeks of sick leave for medium-sized businesses.

“Sometimes we wonder what team he’s playing for,” griped a Republican senator, referring to Mnuchin.

GOP leaders in Congress are also coming under pressure from governors in both parties.

The National Governors Association (NGA) on Saturday asked Congress for $500 billion to help states facing budget deficits from their fight against the coronavirus.

‘Congress must appropriate an additional $500 billion specifically for all states and territories to meet the states’ budgetary shortfalls that have resulted from this unprecedented public health crisis,” Hogan and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), who is vice chairman of the NGA, said in a joint statement.

That could be a big ask. Bailing out state budget shortfalls is not a popular idea in the Senate GOP conference.

“We’re generally not interested in bailing out the states,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said when the previous coronavirus bill was being crafted. “They’re their own form of government. They have their own taxing authority.”

Tags Andrew Cuomo Ben Cardin Charles Schumer coronavirus relief deficit John Kennedy Josh Hawley Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Paycheck Protection Program Ron Johnson Sean Hannity Steven Mnuchin Tom Cotton

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