Republicans prepare to punt on next COVID-19 relief bill
Republican senators are leaning into their go-slow approach on the next coronavirus bill.
Bolstered by last week’s unexpectedly positive jobs report, Senate Republicans are signaling they will not pass another bill before late July. They have also flatly rejected the $3 trillion price tag of the bill passed last month by House Democrats.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) indicated to GOP colleagues during a closed-door policy lunch on Tuesday that he does not anticipate the chamber will take up another coronavirus relief package before leaving for a two-week July 4 recess, according to senators in the meeting.
Instead, McConnell told Republicans he viewed the next work period — which runs from July 20 to Aug. 7 — as the time to take up and pass a bill, setting up a crucial three-week window.
“That seemed like a pretty wise strategy,” said Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Republican senator, “and we’ll have a better sense for what we’ll need to do probably a few weeks down the road.”
Since Congress passed a record $2.2 trillion package in late March, Republicans have hit pause on another comprehensive package, though they’ve approved additional Paycheck Protection Program funds and other changes to the emergency loan program for small businesses.
The decision to wait for at least six more weeks before acting again is the latest indication they aren’t planning to change that strategy. Republicans say they need more time to evaluate how the total of nearly $3 trillion already approved by Congress is being used, arguing that moving quickly would be fiscally irresponsible.
Asked when he thinks the Senate will take up another bill, Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), a member of GOP leadership, told reporters: “The end of July.”
That is “frankly my sense of when I think we’ll have all the information we need to put the next bill together. And it might be about the time when all of the money … has been spent,” he added.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who chairs the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, added that he viewed waiting until after the July 4 recess as the “right timeline.”
“I think we’ve spent a massive amount of money, not all of it has even been spent yet … and I think we need to evaluate what we’ve done before we do anything else,” he said.
But not every GOP senator is on board with leadership’s time frame.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who faces a tough reelection bid in November, told The Hill that she would prefer the Senate move faster on another coronavirus measure.
“I would prefer that we act sooner. In Maine, communities are really suffering and seeing sharp revenue drops,” she said when asked about waiting until after the July 4 recess.
Democrats are trying to build public pressure on McConnell to bring a bill to the floor this month, warning that if Republicans wait too long they could inject fresh turmoil into the economy, which entered a recession in February.
“If the president and Senate Republicans declare victory too early, if they lull into complacency now, if they wait too long to pass another round of emergency relief, the economic conditions in our country will deteriorate. If we do nothing, more Americans will lose their jobs,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).
Complicating the GOP time frame, the House is only scheduled to be in town for two weeks in July before leaving Washington until September.
The GOP’s wait-and-see strategy isn’t without risks: Tens of millions remain unemployed following job cuts sparked by the coronavirus.
But in a surprise, Labor Department data released Friday showed the U.S. economy added 2.5 million jobs in May as businesses begin to reopen after coronavirus-related closures. The country lost 20.7 million jobs in April.
The unemployment rate in May dipped to 13.3 percent, down from 14.7 percent the previous month when it hit the highest level since the Great Depression.
The numbers shattered economists’ expectations that unemployment would approach 20 percent and millions more jobs would be lost. The figures quickly bolstered the thinking among Republicans that they should not rush to pass a fifth coronavirus bill this month, though GOP senators say they expect Congress will need to pass another relief package eventually.
“I think it’s very encouraging. You know, it’s hard to know what to make of it because it defied all of the more negative predictions,” said Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), a member of GOP leadership.
A spokesman for Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who chairs the Finance Committee, said shortly after the jobs data was released that it “underscores why Congress should take a thoughtful approach and not rush to pass expensive legislation … before gaining a better understanding of the economic condition of the country.”
“It’s too early to say what that legislation might encompass,” the spokesman added.
While senators and administration officials say nascent, informal bipartisan talks are underway about the next bill, they don’t expect formal negotiations to get started for at least another month. Republicans want consensus among themselves before they start negotiating with Democrats, and several points of division remain within the party, including what to do with unemployment insurance and help for state and local governments.
They also need to agree on a price tag. While Senate Republicans are likely to back a measure that’s significantly less than the $3 trillion pitch from Democrats, McConnell hasn’t publicly endorsed an amount. GOP senators acknowledged they had heard a “rumor” about the next bill being around $1 trillion, but stressed that no decision had been made.
“Nobody’s set a cap on it,” said Cornyn.
Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) added that they would weigh a potential price tag against “what’s happened … and how the current program is playing out.”
“Whether it’s a trillion, a half trillion or 2 trillion, I don’t know,” he added.