Tea Party rises up against McConnell’s $1 trillion relief plan
The debate over the size of the next coronavirus relief bill is reopening the same divisions within the Republican Party that spawned the Tea Party movement more than a decade ago, putting Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in a delicate spot.
McConnell is up for reelection this fall in Kentucky, a state that has been a hotbed of Tea Party activism over the past 10-plus years. His home state colleague, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a Tea Party favorite, is taking an outspoken stand against another large federal relief package.
The situation is eerily similar to 2008, when McConnell was up for reelection for his fifth Senate term. That fall, Congress was under intense pressure to pass an expensive relief bill to stave off a possible depression while there was an unpopular Republican in the White House and a presidential election only weeks away.
The first relief bill that Congress passed, which created the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and which McConnell supported, was later labeled a Wall Street bailout by disgruntled conservatives, who saw it as the apogee of eight years of profligate spending under the George W. Bush administration.
Conservative disillusionment over the lack of fiscal discipline by the Republican establishment in Washington crystalized into the Tea Party revolution that later swept colleagues such as Paul, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) into the Senate in 2010 and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) into the chamber in 2012.
Asked about the conservative backlash to the 2008 bailout legislation, Paul said the “whole Tea Party movement arose out of that because they were sick of Washington Republicans who weren’t conservative anymore.”
Paul says conservatives are feeling the same anger today over the exploding deficit, which was projected to reach $3.8 trillion for 2020 even before lawmakers started negotiating the newest coronavirus relief package: “There’s a lot of frustration.”
Exasperation over the swelling deficit during Bush’s presidency was a factor that contributed to big Republican losses at the polls in 2008, when Barack Obama won the White House and Democrats picked up eight Senate seats while expanding their House majority.
McConnell at a lunch meeting Tuesday with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and Republican senators told colleagues he wants to keep the size of the next package at $1 trillion. But that hasn’t satisfied some Tea Party Republicans.
Cruz declared he is a “hell no” on McConnell’s emerging coronavirus relief proposal. He said Republicans “sadly” envision McConnell’s bill as “an opening gambit,” predicting it will soon balloon in cost.
“This is the swamp in a feeding frenzy. Everybody’s lobbyist has their hand out, saying, ‘Look, if you’re spending trillions of dollars, I want to get some.’ And it’s not right,” he said.
Johnson, who won a stunning upset victory in 2010 as a Tea Party candidate, says he is staunchly opposed to spending any more money when some lawmakers estimate that close to $1 trillion from the CARES Act remains unspent. He says Congress shouldn’t authorize “a dime more” until “we’ve thoroughly taken a look at the $2.9 trillion we’ve already authorized” and understand how much of it hasn’t yet been spent.
“When we were in the minority, we were able to put a brake on Obama’s desires,” Johnson pointed out, but observed that Republicans have lost fiscal discipline since taking the majority, in part because of having to make concessions to Democrats to pass bills.
Paul said Wednesday, “I think conservatives are unhappy with all the money we’re spending up here on the virus. They would rather the economy open. Most of them think we acted in an overzealous way in terms of closing the economy down.”
“Up here, most Republicans seem to have forgotten what they once stood for,” he said. “Now there’s no difference, they’re acting exactly like the Democrats and they’re just running around saying we can win the election if we just borrow more money and spend it.”
Paul blasted his Republican colleagues on Twitter Tuesday after McConnell told his conference at a lunch meeting that his goal is to keep the GOP relief proposal at $1 trillion.
“There was actually a senator who stood up in our caucus yesterday and said a trillion isn’t that much because the Democrats will spend more if they win the election,” he said, declining to name his colleague.
He also compared the Senate GOP caucus this week to “the Bernie bros,” referencing supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a self-described democratic socialist.
Paul, a doctor with then relatively little professional political experience, was elected to the Senate in 2010 during the Tea Party wave, defeating a heavily favored primary opponent who was backed at the time by McConnell and the GOP establishment in Washington.
McConnell faced his own Tea Party challenger, Matt Bevin, in 2014, who appeared to pose a real threat until McConnell’s well-oiled political operation systematically dismantled him. Bevin went on to be elected governor of Kentucky with McConnell’s support.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which was headed in 2008 by Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), ran an attack ad shortly after the TARP passed targeting McConnell for supporting it. The Democratic strategy was to drive a wedge between McConnell and fiscal conservatives in his base.
At the time, a political strategist close to McConnell said the GOP leader would likely never forget how Democrats used his support for TARP against him in 2008.
Brian Darling, a Republican strategist and former Senate aide, said there are striking similarities between 2020 and 2008, when Congress last wrestled with an economic crisis on the cusp of a presidential election.
“There are similarities between TARP and what’s going on now, but there are some differences too. One of the big problems that conservatives are having right now is they’re worried that the Republican Party is losing its way on spending. It’s going to be a year of record deficit,” Darling said.
“Republicans are deeply concerned that if there’s no attempt to even find offsets to new spending, we’re going down a road that will make the Republican Party the party of big spenders,” he added.