GOP faces internal conflicts on fifth coronavirus bill

Republicans are increasingly saying they expect to pass a fifth coronavirus bill — just don’t ask them to agree, yet, on what should be in it. 

While a growing number of GOP senators say they should move quickly, deep divisions remain within the caucus on everything from key policy provisions and timing to if another bill should be passed at all. 

“I don’t think there’s a consensus yet on a path forward,” said Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican.

Congress has already appropriated approximately $2.8 trillion, including a $2.2 trillion package that was signed into law on March 27 and an “interim” $484 billion bill that cleared in late April. 

Since then, members of GOP leadership hit “pause” on additional legislation as they reviewed the previous spending and privately discussed what they should do as the coronavirus continues to cause deep economic damage. 

“I don’t think we’re close at all,” said Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.). “We’d have to have sessions like we did on March 23, 24, 25, over that weekend, and there’s no dynamic like that going on that I’m aware of.” 

Asked if there was a proposal, besides liability protection, that had broad support within the caucus, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of leadership, said, “I truthfully don’t know that we’re to that point yet.”

“[We need] to figure out what we need in the second quarter … the months of, say, July, August and September that would be different than what we needed in April and May and June,” Blunt added. “I don’t think we know, and I don’t think we should be expected to know right now.” 

The GOP brainstorming comes as Democrats have clamored for Congress to pass another large-scale coronavirus relief package. The House passed a roughly $3 trillion bill earlier this month, which has been declared “dead on arrival” in the Senate. It is expected to take up additional coronavirus-related legislation when it returns on Wednesday. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has advocated for a wait-and-see approach as some states begin to lift social distancing restrictions. When Republicans should move forward has sparked conflicting opinions from McConnell’s members. 

Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), one of two GOP senators up for reelection in a state President Trump lost in 2016, broke rank late last week to question why the Senate was leaving town for a weeklong Memorial Day recess without passing additional coronavirus legislation. 

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the other GOP senator on the ballot in a state Hillary Clinton won in 2016, also threw her support behind staying. 

But the push to stay in through the recess specifically for the coronavirus puzzled other Republicans. 

Braun noted that he wasn’t opposed to coming back to Washington, but that wasn’t a sign lawmakers would be ready to do coronavirus legislation.

“I think you’d have individuals scratching their heads … because there’s been no basic platform thrown out there,” he said. 

Thune called the timeline “highly unlikely,” adding, “We could stay. … We could continue to do nominations.” 

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, predicted that serious negotiations wouldn’t get underway until the third or fourth week of June. 

“What are we doing right now thinking about what we’re going to do in the next virus bill … without knowing where we are now?” Grassley asked.

McConnell hasn’t said when he will move legislation, but he’s hinted the GOP holding pattern could soon be coming to an end. He told House Republicans during a conference call that they would maintain their current posture for “for a little longer,” according to a source briefed on the call. 

He added during a Fox News interview that there was a “high likelihood” that Congress would pass another bill but that time wasn’t quite ripe. 

“We’re not quite ready to intelligently lay down the next step, but it’s not too far off,” he said. 

Bringing the next bill to the forefront is all but guaranteed to put a spotlight on GOP divisions, which have been percolating in the closed-door lunches and on the Senate floor for weeks. 

“I know there’s sort of a sense to do something, but I think that the question is what’s that something, and there’s not a broad agreement on that,” Thune said. 

One of the biggest points of division is help for state and local governments, which have been hit hard as businesses have shuttered, depriving them of a lucrative tax base. 

A bipartisan group of senators is pushing for Congress to provide an additional $500 billion to state and local governments, including allowing some of the funding to go toward revenue replacement. 

“Congress has a tremendous responsibility to help mitigate the impact of this crisis on our states and our local communities and on the families they serve. We must not wait. We should act now,” Collins said, pleading with her colleagues to pass legislation. 

But greenlighting more funding to states, or even providing more flexibility to the $150 billion Congress has already passed, is anathema to some Republicans who have warned about states trying to use the money to cover bad budget decisions. 

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) has blocked an attempt by Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) to bring up legislation to give states more flexibility three times. 

“I know that some on my side of the aisle disagree with me,” Kennedy acknowledged during his third attempt to get the bill a vote. 

But GOP senators will also need to work out how to address unemployment insurance, which got beefed up during the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act. McConnell told House Republicans, and reiterated during the Fox News interview, that the next bill will not continue the extra $600 per week implemented in the March bill. Nearly 39 million have filed for unemployment since the start of the pandemic. 

Some powerful chairmen, including Blunt and Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), are pushing to include an infrastructure package, something McConnell indicated late last month would not make the cut.

And even largely bipartisan fixes to the Paycheck Protection Program have hit snags. Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Collins introduced legislation that would extend the period of time businesses have to spend the loans from eight weeks to 16 weeks. The bill had support from leadership in both parties, but Rubio disclosed on Friday that at least one office had objected and prevented the bill from passing without a vote.

McConnell has largely been tight-lipped about what he wants in the next bill except for his “red line” on including liability protections for employers. And he’s pledged that Senate Republicans will be in lockstep with the White House. 

“There will be no space between the White House and Senate Republicans on the next bill,” he told Fox News. 

Trump was asked by Kennedy during a closed-door lunch last week what his time frame was for the next bill and what should be in it. 

“The president gave a very vague, artful answer,” Kennedy said. “That’s not a criticism. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a plan, but it was clear to me he’s not ready to tell us what it is.” 

Tags Ben Cardin Chuck Grassley Coronavirus Cory Gardner COVID-19 Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Jeanne Shaheen John Kennedy John Thune lockdowns Marco Rubio Mike Braun Mitch McConnell Paycheck Protection Program Roger Wicker Roy Blunt Susan Collins

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