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 Trump’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. 

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 Thune (R-S.D.) told The Hill. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he expects he’ll get “significant” support but “probably not everybody.” 

McConnell, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows 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 Kennedy (R-La.). 

Sen. Kevin Cramer (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 Paul (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 Cruz (R-Texas) told reporters that he asked his colleagues, “What the hell are we doing?” Sen. Ron Johnson (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 Cassidy (La.) and Susan Collins (Maine) have asked for. Sen. Cory Gardner (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 Grassley (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.” 

Tags Bill Cassidy Chuck Grassley Coronavirus Cory Gardner COVID-19 Donald Trump John Kennedy John Thune Kevin Cramer Mark Meadows Mitch McConnell Rand Paul Reopening schools Ron Johnson Steven Mnuchin Susan Collins Ted Cruz

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