GOP faces pressure to get tougher with Trump
Republicans in the Senate are under growing pressure to take the administration to task for its response to the coronavirus.
GOP senators, with a few exceptions, have been reluctant to criticize the administration, but they are starting to re-evaluate that kid-glove treatment amid public frustration over the lack of virus testing kits and protective equipment and reports of taxpayer dollars going to questionable causes.
Some GOP strategists say it would be smart for Republican senators to use oversight to distance themselves from some of the administration’s problems and to burnish their reputations with independents.
Republicans have a 53-47 seat majority, but the Senate is increasingly seen as in play this fall given the health and economic crises the nation is suffering.
“This may be an unprecedented circumstance in terms of public health and the budget, but it’s not unprecedented politically for the party in Congress to look at the incumbent president in the election and say ‘How can we protect ourselves from the drag of the White House?’ ” said Vin Weber, a Republican strategist.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) earlier this month tapped Senate Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) to coordinate Senate Republican oversight of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act that President Trump signed into law March 27.
Crapo, who helped draft a $500 billion appropriation to the Treasury Department to set up a joint Treasury-Federal Reserve program to backstop loans, has urged administration officials to begin collecting information to share with Congress.
Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee Chairman Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is warning companies that they will be investigated if they abuse the small-business lending fund and has threatened to use subpoenas if necessary to compel cooperation.
Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) says his committee is preparing to conduct oversight into the readiness of the national stockpile, vulnerabilities in the nation’s supply chain, and the use and accuracy of models used to predict and respond to the pandemic.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) sent a letter to Trump last week warning the president not to interfere in congressional oversight of coronavirus relief legislation.
Grassley said he was alarmed by a signing statement Trump affixed to the CARES Act last month asserting that the White House would supervise the special inspector general for pandemic recovery’s reports to Congress.
“Over time, politicians in both the legislative and the executive branches have attempted to politicize IGs [inspectors general] and use them for gain but, even the appearance of political interference in their process cannot be tolerated,” Grassley warned in his letter.
McConnell has stopped short of setting up a special coronavirus relief committee, as Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has done in the House.
Republicans are leery about holding oversight hearings they worry could become a platform for Democrats to rail against the president.
“In general, Republican chairmen want to have oversight of this. It’s trillions of dollars in spending. Certain chairmen have been very aggressive in working with agencies already and conducting that oversight during implementation,” said a Senate Republican aide.
The aide, however, said there is “concern” that Democrats could use oversight hearings for “partisan grandstanding.”
There’s reason for Republicans to be wary of Democrats going on the attack.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and his colleagues during a Tuesday conference call said they would make congressional oversight of Trump’s handling of the pandemic and his implementation of relief legislation their top focus next week.
“If we are going to be in D.C. with the coronavirus raging, it is critically important that we continue and actually ramp up our messaging and activities on the oversight front,” Schumer told colleagues in the private call, according to a Democratic source familiar with the meeting.
Schumer told colleagues: “We must hold the administration accountable for the mistakes they are making on the small-business program, hospitals, testing and more,” according to the Democratic source.
The Democratic leader on Tuesday morning accused Trump of fumbling the tools Congress gave him to solve the crisis.
“This administration has been an abject failure at implementing most of these laws,” he said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” asserting the administration doesn’t have the necessary qualified personnel and focus.
Senior administration officials have acknowledged some abuse of the small-business loan program.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Tuesday said it was “outrageous” that the Los Angeles Lakers, a basketball franchise valued at more than $4 billion, was able to secure a $4.6 million loan through the Paycheck Protection Program at a time when many small businesses facing bankruptcy have been unable to obtain federally backed loans.
The administration has also drawn fire for small-business loans going to large publicly traded companies such as Shake Shack, Ruth’s Chris Steak House and Potbelly Sandwich Shop. All three companies have promised to return federal assistance.
Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) sent a letter last week to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar requesting information on his department’s plan to oversee and administer coronavirus-related funding to health care providers.
“The protection of taxpayer dollars is one of the most important roles of the federal government, and we must work to ensure that taxpayer funds are spent responsibly and that assistance is only provided to those in need,” he wrote.
Scott has also raised concern about the slow deployment of testing kits. He told reporters at the Capitol last week: “We’re way behind still where we should be on testing.”
Weber warned that Republican incumbents have to walk a tightrope “because the majority and probably vast majority of your voters are not unhappy with the president.”
“You have to convince wary voters that you are really separating yourself from the president and representing local interests, not national, while not convincing the president’s base supporters that you’re abandoning him,” he added.