Coronavirus talks fracture GOP unity

Coronavirus talks fracture GOP unity
© Greg Nash

Senate Republicans and the White House are struggling to reach an agreement on a GOP coronavirus bill as they remain all over the board despite a looming time crunch. 

Republicans are locked down in days of closed-door negotiations. But they haven’t yet agreed on significant portions of the forthcoming legislation, including the payroll tax cut and what to do about unemployment benefits. There’s also angst about the bill’s price tag, and Republicans appear ready to break with President TrumpDonald John TrumpWhite House sued over lack of sign language interpreters at coronavirus briefings Wife blames Trump, lack of masks for husband's coronavirus death in obit: 'May Karma find you all' Trump authorizes reduced funding for National Guard coronavirus response through 2020 MORE’s threat to defund schools that don’t hold in-person classes. 

It’s a U-turn from March, when the GOP and the entire Senate united behind the $2.2 trillion CARES Act in a 96-0 vote. 

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The next relief package, by contrast, is unlikely to have unified GOP support, let alone unanimous support.

“We’ve got some people who are going to balk at how much it is, probably going to balk at some of the specific provisions within it, and you know we won’t have everybody, but you want to try to get as many as you can,” Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneSenate GOP divided over whether they'd fill Supreme Court vacancy  Frustration builds as negotiators struggle to reach COVID-19 deal Unemployment benefits to expire as coronavirus talks deadlock MORE (R-S.D.) told The Hill. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellProfessional sports players associations come out against coronavirus liability protections Democratic leaders report 'some progress' in talks with White House Top GOP senator urges agencies to protect renters, banks amid coronavirus aid negotiations MORE (R-Ky.) said he expects he’ll get “significant” support but “probably not everybody.” 

McConnell, Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinTrump won't say if he disagrees with Birx that virus is widespread On The Money: Democratic leaders report 'some progress' in stimulus talks | Prosecutors hint at probe into 'possibly extensive and protracted criminal conduct at the Trump Organization' Democratic leaders report 'some progress' in talks with White House MORE and White House chief of staff Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsTrump won't say if he disagrees with Birx that virus is widespread On The Money: Democratic leaders report 'some progress' in stimulus talks | Prosecutors hint at probe into 'possibly extensive and protracted criminal conduct at the Trump Organization' Democratic leaders report 'some progress' in talks with White House MORE on Tuesday briefed Republicans during a closed-door lunch, the first time the caucus was able to gather and learn about the contours of the deal.

Senators characterized their talks as an exchange of ideas — roughly 15 senators spoke about ideas they want in the bill, according to Republicans in the room — rather than Republicans making concrete decisions on the specifics of the forthcoming proposal. 

“We haven’t reached a conclusion on anything,” said Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.). 

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Sen. Kevin CramerKevin John CramerThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: iBIO Chairman and CEO Thomas Isett says developing a safe vaccine is paramount; US surpasses 150,000 coronavirus deaths with roughy one death per minute McConnell tees up showdown on unemployment benefits Senate panel scraps confirmation hearing for controversial Pentagon nominee at last minute MORE (R-N.D.) added that there were “a lot of ideas” among Republicans but that there would “need to be some prioritizing.” 

Republican leadership and the White House have pointed to a top-line figure of roughly $1 trillion — approximately a third of the nearly $3 trillion previously passed by House Democrats.

But even agreeing to a top-line figure, which impacts every other decision that needs to be made about the bill, is earning vocal pushback from some GOP senators. 

Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulMultiple lawmakers self-quarantine after exposure to Gohmert Gohmert tests positive for COVID-19 Republican senators revolt over coronavirus proposal MORE (R-Ky.) railed against his party, saying there was “no difference” between Republicans and Democrats on spending and comparing the talks about the administration and GOP senators to a meeting of the “Bernie Bros.” 

“This is insane. It's got to stop. We're ruining the country, and there has to be some voice left for fiscal conservatism in this country, and I, for one, am alarmed at where the country is heading. I'm also alarmed my party has forgotten what they actually stand for,” Paul told reporters. 

Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOn The Trail: The first signs of a post-Trump GOP Trump tests GOP loyalty with election tweet and stimulus strategy Republicans dismiss Trump proposal to delay election MORE (R-Texas) told reporters that he asked his colleagues, “What the hell are we doing?” Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonThis week: Negotiators hunt for coronavirus deal as August break looms Sunday shows preview: White House, Democratic leaders struggle for deal on coronavirus bill Frustration builds as negotiators struggle to reach COVID-19 deal MORE (R-Wis.), meanwhile, characterized himself as “unconvinced” about the bill. 

“I’m going to have a hard time supporting any new spending. ... The fact that we’re just willy-nilly saying and some people are really talking about like 'A trillion dollars, that’s real fiscal constraint, here. We’re going to hold the line at a trillion dollars.' It just boggles my mind,” he added. 

Some Republicans, despite previously embracing big spending, have grown increasingly concerned about the impact of the nearly $3 trillion in coronavirus spending on the country’s debt. 

The divisions come as Congress and the administration are facing a tight timeline that leaves them little room for missteps. But both White House officials and Democrats indicated that they are waiting on decisions from the same group: Senate Republicans. 

“Well, as you can imagine, any time you have Senate Republicans there, you have a number of different thoughts on what should or should not happen,” Meadows said about the GOP lunch, appearing to acknowledge the competing ideas from the caucus.

McConnell is having to balance competing factions in his caucus as he writes the forthcoming Republican bill, which he indicated he would introduce this week. 

Thune said “generally speaking” there’s a consensus on a top line and some components of the bill, such as liability protections. He noted that there was an agreement among Republicans that they didn't want to “pay people not to work” but then tipped his hand to disagreements on the specifics, adding, “Now how we actually structure that still remains to be seen.” 

The Republican bill is expected to provide more flexibility for state and local governments but not provide new funding, something Republicans such as Sens. Bill CassidyWilliam (Bill) Morgan CassidyStimulus checks debate now focuses on size, eligibility On The Money: GDP shrinks by record amount in second quarter amid virus lockdowns | Jobless claims rise for second straight week | McConnell tees up fight on unemployment benefits GOP senators propose stimulus checks of ,000 for both adults and children MORE (La.) and Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsObama announces first wave of 2020 endorsements Senate GOP divided over whether they'd fill Supreme Court vacancy  On The Trail: The first signs of a post-Trump GOP MORE (Maine) have asked for. Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott Gardner300 green groups say Senate has 'moral duty' to reject Trump's public lands nominee Obama announces first wave of 2020 endorsements On The Trail: The first signs of a post-Trump GOP MORE (R-Colo.), who like Collins faces a tough reelection, said he was pitching his own ideas and brushed off the idea that there would be one Republican plan. 

“I don't know if it's the Republican plan. We've all got ideas,” he said when asked about McConnell’s plan to introduce the GOP bill within a few days. 

There have also been days of disagreements about top priorities between the White House and congressional Republicans. And on Tuesday they couldn’t even agree on a deadline: Mnuchin said he wants something done by the end of next week; McConnell indicated he didn’t think that would happen. 

The White House initially opposed more money for testing and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It appeared to be preparing to backpedal, with Republican senators saying they were making progress on a deal. Senate Republicans are also proposing allowing K-12 schools that do not hold in-person classes to still have access to approximately half of the $70 billion they are expected to allocate in their upcoming bill.  

But Republican senators remain divided about including a payroll tax cut, one of Trump’s top priorities for the fifth bill. Several GOP senators, including Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleySenate GOP divided over whether they'd fill Supreme Court vacancy  Republicans dismiss Trump proposal to delay election Timeline for GOP's Obama probe report slips as chairman eyes subpoenas MORE (R-Iowa) and Thune, have indicated they think direct checks are preferable to doing a payroll tax cut. 

McConnell acknowledged that they still haven’t figured out how to resolve the issue.

“There are some differences of opinion on the question of the payroll tax cut and whether that's the best way to go,” he told reporters. “And so, we're still in discussion with the administration on that.”