Republicans sharply divided over timeline for reopening economy

Support is building among Republicans for reopening the economy sooner rather than later, but not all GOP lawmakers are on the same page.

Some conservatives are pushing more aggressive timelines while some moderates are adopting a more cautious approach.

Republicans are wrestling with the looming threat of a second wave of coronavirus infections and the more immediate reality of rising unemployment, with 4.4 million more Americans applying for jobless benefits last week.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) are leading the push for state economies to open quickly so that businesses can resume operations and furloughed workers can get off unemployment. 

Those senators, however, aren’t aligning themselves with Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) and his abrupt decision to reopen gyms, hair and nail salons, bowling alleys, tattoo parlors and massage parlors starting Friday.

Trump on Wednesday said he told Kemp that he “strongly” disagreed with the governor’s timeline. The president went after the governor again at Thursday’s White House press briefing.

“I’m not happy about it, and I’m not happy about Brian Kemp,” Trump said, noting that Kemp’s decision is in violation of federal guidelines. “I told him that. I said, ‘You’re not in the guidelines but I’m letting you make your own decision. I don’t want this thing to flair up because you’re deciding to do something that is not in the guidelines.’ ”

Georgia had reported more than 21,000 cases of coronavirus and at least 871 deaths as of Thursday. 

Meanwhile, GOP moderates such as Sens. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) and Susan Collins (Maine) are urging caution and for policymakers to pay close attention to the recommendations of public health experts, who are more focused on preventing a second wave of infections than getting the economy back on track.

Alexander, who isn’t seeking reelection, says people shouldn’t go back to work until health experts have a better sense of who’s infected and who needs to be quarantined. 

“I don’t think Tennesseans and Americans want to go back to work, back to school, unless we know whether we have the virus or the people who have it have been isolated. I’m focused on a new technology to produce tens of millions of diagnostic tests that’ll be ready this summer,” Alexander told News 4 Nashville this week.

He said new testing and treatments are needed, and the process for reopening the economy needs to be methodical. 

Alexander said he supports Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s (R) decision to allow a “safer at home” order expire at the end of the month but he says it’s too soon to allow kids to return to school without more testing.

“So for phase one, we have enough tests for people who are sick. But for going back to school, I don’t think we do, and we’re going to need a new technology to do it,” he said Wednesday on Fox Business. 

Collins, who is one of the most vulnerable senators up for reelection this year, said Maine doesn’t have enough resources to conduct the testing she thinks is necessary to reopen the state economy.

“Widespread testing will be essential for helping medical professionals determine when it is safe to reopen the economy and for giving people the confidence to go back to school, sporting events, and other public forums,” Collins said in a statement Wednesday. 

She added that increased testing should be a “joint effort,” with the federal government playing “the leading role.”

“States like Maine simply lack the resources to conduct the necessary number of tests on their own. We need to act now to scale up production,” she said. 

Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah), another leading GOP moderate, has been in touch with Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) and other state and local officials but has let them handle the decisionmaking process.

Some Republicans, such as Sen. Bill Cassidy (La.), a doctor, agree there needs to be a dramatic increase in testing before state economies are reopened. He is proposing hundreds of billions of dollars in additional federal aid to states to cushion the economic blow of keeping businesses closed.

Cassidy has expressed concern about “the financial health” of the country, which he said is getting “pummeled.”

But he is leery of reopening the economy along the guidelines unveiled last week by the Trump administration without increased testing.

“I would like to have, in conjunction with this, though, widespread testing and knowing who is positive, who’s not. If you are at risk and you’re not immune, then by golly you better take real strong precautions. If you are immune and you are no increased particular risk, you have a lot more freedom,” he said on “Full Court Press with Greta Van Susteren.”

A spokesperson for Cassidy said the Louisiana senator “believes in a more targeted approach” than what Kemp is advocating in Georgia, adding that Cassidy thinks “different states will have different approaches.”

“If the CDC were using the testing and contact tracing he is calling for, then it could analyze not just states, but cities or even neighborhoods to evaluate the risk of an outbreak in specific areas,” the aide added. 

Cassidy is also pushing a bipartisan plan to set up a $500 billion fund for hard-hit states, a plan he pitched during a Thursday conference call with colleagues.

Other Senate Republicans, however, are not fond of sending more money to cash-strapped state and local governments, especially New York, the home state of Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D).

McConnell on Wednesday said he would be in favor of allowing some states to declare bankruptcy if they face irrecoverable fiscal shortfalls. That comment drew bipartisan backlash, particularly from Republicans such as Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan. 

Senate GOP aides acknowledge there are conflicting views within the GOP conference over how to proceed. 

“Everybody will have their own position. Everyone will be reliant on what their state does. We will trust governors to make decisions that are based on whatever their needs are,” said a Senate GOP aide after Republican senators held a conference call Thursday.

“I think that most Republicans would like the economy to be open sooner rather than later. But we’re not going to come out with a unified Republican plan,” the aide said.

Many Senate Republicans are pushing for their states to start loosening restrictions on businesses immediately.

Toomey, who last week called the economic lockdown “draconian,” released a plan Thursday calling for two-thirds of Pennsylvania to resume some economic activities.

He argued that many hospitals, especially in central and western Pennsylvania are at low capacity.

He has introduced a three-phase plan to reopen Pennsylvania, which has had more than 38,000 coronavirus cases.

Phase one would allow businesses to open if they can adopt social distancing and hygiene protocols and if they’re located in counties with declining or limited coronavirus cases.

The second phase would allow higher-trafficked establishments such as restaurants, bars and gyms to open with proper social distancing and hygiene protocols and allow schools to resume under the supervision of state and school districts. 

The final phase would relax restrictions on restaurants, bars and gyms and allow entertainment venues like theaters and concert halls to begin reopening. The third phase would depend on increased testing capacity and the development of effective therapies. 

Other Republicans, however, have voiced support for a more aggressive timeline.

McConnell said he is urging Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D) to begin allowing businesses to reopen.

“The ultimate solution to this is to get the economy back up and running. I’m encouraging our governor, for example, and he’s already doing it, to begin to make steps in the direction of opening up the economy,” the GOP leader told Fox News. 

Cruz has been at the forefront of calling for workers to be allowed to return to their jobs. 

“If we continue shelter-in-place, that’s going to be devastating for the economy,” Cruz told the Temple Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday. “For young healthy people, it makes sense to go back to work.”

The Texas conservative said the health quarantines have accomplished their goal in making “meaningful progress in flattening the curve and slowing the rate of transmission.”

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) has echoed the argument that social distancing and quarantine guidelines have kept the virus in check enough to allow businesses to start reopening.

“What we’ve talked about all along, flattening the curve and limiting the spread — that has occurred. We’ve significantly flattened the curve in Oklahoma and several other states,” he told Fox 25 in Oklahoma City.

Tags Bill Cassidy Chuck Schumer Coronavirus Georgia James Lankford Kentucky Lamar Alexander Louisiana Mitch McConnell Mitt Romney Pandemic Pat Toomey Pennsylvania Social distancing stay-at-home orders Susan Collins Ted Cruz Tennessee

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