Senate GOP crafting wishlist for next coronavirus package
Senate Republicans say that Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) new $3 trillion coronavirus relief package is dead on arrival in the upper chamber, but they are assembling ideas for a package that could pass this summer.
While Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called for a “pause” last week on new coronavirus legislation, rank-and-file Senate Republicans acknowledge there is growing pressure to respond to the House Democrats.
One Republican senator who requested anonymity to comment on internal discussions said the “pause” posture will be politically tenable for only so long.
“I think it’s viable for now. How long it remains viable is determined by what is going on in the country, what the ‘getting back out, going back to work, getting out of our homes’ begins to look like,” the senator said.
But the lawmaker said waves of new unemployment claims will put pressure on Senate Republicans to act before too long.
“Unemployment numbers being what they are, I think there’s going to be an insistence that something additional happen,” the GOP senator said.
The Labor Department reported Friday the national unemployment rate hit 14.7 percent in April, the highest since the Great Depression.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has pounced on McConnell’s wait-and-see strategy to accuse Senate Republicans of “dithering.”
He now regularly compares Senate Republicans to President Hoover, who resisted expansive government intervention at the start of the Great Depression and predicted the economy would swiftly recover on its own.
“When Republican leaders look at unemployment numbers and say we don’t need to act immediately, that government’s done enough already, they are the latter-day Herbert Hoovers and I fear it could lead to similar results,” Schumer said on the floor Tuesday.
McConnell on Tuesday subtly shifted from last week’s call for a pause by instead emphasizing the need for additional coronavirus legislation to be “narrowly targeted.”
“We’re going to insist on doing narrowly targeted legislation if and when we do legislate again, and we may well,” he told reporters.
Senate Republicans have publicly questioned the need to pass additional legislation soon, arguing that only a small portion of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act and the $484 billion of the interim coronavirus relief bill passed in April has gone out the door.
But privately they admit it’s only a matter of time before another massive package passes.
Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said that “we’ve got a lot of members with good ideas.”
“If and when there is another round and there’s a need to do something, we’ve solicited ideas — our office has — and there’s a lot of good stuff coming in the door, much of which is being vetted and thought about and discussed in terms of how it might be integrated to the next CARES Act or phase four,” he said.
But Thune emphasized that Republicans want to wait “until we see how some of these programs that are already authorized and funded are working.”
Two core proposals have emerged from Republican senators so far: a litigation shield for businesses that reopen while the pandemic is still going strong and a reform of beefed-up unemployment benefits that Congress approved in March that critics say are making it tougher to hire lower- and middle-income workers.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee who has been tasked with overseeing the litigation reform effort, said the GOP plan could be unveiled in the next several days along with a proposal to give unemployed workers more incentive to rejoin the labor force.
Republican lawmakers say they don’t see any legislation moving until June — at the earliest. But they say it’s important to start putting together a list of priorities.
“We’re in the process about talking about and drafting some thoughts,” Cornyn said of the litigation protection piece. “We’re not in any big hurry. I think we’ve got a little bit of time here, but obviously this is not the end. There will be additional legislation.”
“We’ll be rolling some of that out here in the next couple of days,” he added.
The White House has been pushing for a payroll tax cut, which has attracted criticism from both sides of the aisle. It’s unlikely that Senate Republicans will embrace the tax cut.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) is spearheading informal discussion on reforming beefed-up unemployment benefits so that generous payments approved in the CARES Act don’t become an obstacle to rehiring workers.
Portman is floating a proposal under which workers would be allowed to keep a portion of their unemployment insurance if they go back to work.
“We’re finding from employers back home that as they reopen, they’re having a difficult time getting workers and part of it is because of the unemployment [insurance] issue,” he said. “The idea is to allow them to take some of their $600 back to work with them.”
The CARES Act, which Congress approved in March, provides a $600 weekly addition to regular state-provided unemployment benefits.
Some Republicans such as Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) has criticized the benefit as too generous because it exceeds typical wages for many jobs in South Carolina, thereby creating a “perverse incentive” not to work.
McConnell on Tuesday afternoon identified “this liability issue” as “essential in moving us safely into phase one and hopefully phase two of reopening the economy.”
“Without it, frankly, that’s just not going to happen as soon as it should have,” he added.
Senate Republicans acknowledge that neither liability protection nor unemployment benefits reform is going to move on its own without significant concessions to Pelosi and the Democrats. They say Democrats will likely demand a high price for including liability protection in a future coronavirus bill.
A group of senators on the Senate Republican Steering Committee met Monday night to discuss whether it would be worth giving in to Democratic demands to enact liability reform, even though it’s a high GOP priority.
Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), who attended the meeting, said, “That will be a difficult trade-off for some depending on what price it comes at. A few of us talked about that [Monday] night. How much is it worth to get [liability reform] when you’re then getting into the tricky dynamic of many states that have run their state governments where this is close to a bailout for them.”
Some Republican senators are pushing for hundreds of billions of dollars to be included in the next round of coronavirus relief.
Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), who has proposed a $500 billion “SMART Fund” to help state and local governments, predicts more Republicans will back his plan when they become more aware of the severe financial hardships they face.
“Once legislators begin to hear from their governors, state legislatures, mayors — that’s when you have to do your whip count,” he said.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), meanwhile, is pushing an ambitious proposal for the federal government to cover 80 percent of wages — up to the national median wage — for workers at any U.S. business. He also wants to give businesses a bonus for rehiring laid-off workers.
Jordain Carney contributed.
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