GOP under mounting pressure to strike virus deal quickly

Republican lawmakers faced with slipping poll numbers and economic indicators acknowledge they are under pressure to reach a quick deal with Democrats on a new coronavirus package.  

Armed with more leverage, Democrats will likely not agree to any deal unless it is closer to the $3.4 trillion bill the House passed in May. Republican officials don’t see any advantages to drawing the battle out.

GOP senators say there are several significant factors that weigh in favor of reaching a deal soon. They include the expiration of the $600-a-week federal enhancement to state unemployment benefits, the expiration of the federal moratorium on evictions, the recent wave of new coronavirus infections in Sun Belt and Midwestern states, the fast-approaching start of the school year, and a wave of potential small-business closures predicted for the weeks ahead.

ADVERTISEMENT

“It has to be timely,” said Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioWisconsinites need infrastructure that is built to last  Republicans struggle to save funding for Trump's border wall Rubio: Dropping FARC from terrorist list threatens Colombians, US security MORE (R-Fla.) of the timeline for passing a measure.

“The goal is to get it done quickly,” he said, adding that “it takes time to deploy money for the testing” and noting that the last round of federal supplemental unemployment benefits are being sent this week.
“Everyone here should feel pressure because this is a rolling economic emergency we’re facing. Every day that goes by with headlines about how far apart we are injects negativity that has an economic consequence,” added Rubio, who chairs the Small Business Committee.

Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisOvernight Defense & National Security — A new plan to treat Marines 'like human beings' Republicans press Milley over perceived progressive military agenda Gun control group alleges campaign finance violations in lawsuit against NRA MORE (N.C.), one of the chamber’s most vulnerable Republican incumbents, said he wants a deal concluded soon so that constituents don’t see a break in enhanced unemployment insurance (UI) benefits.

“I think we want to get something fairly soon so we have continuity of UI benefits in particular,” he said.

It remains unclear if Congress can strike an agreement by the end of next week, when the Senate is scheduled to adjourn for its August recess.

Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyNo deal in sight as Congress nears debt limit deadline GOP holds on Biden nominees set back gains for women in top positions This Thanksgiving, skip the political food fights and talk UFOs instead MORE (R-Utah) also warned Tuesday about the lapse of enhanced unemployment benefits.

ADVERTISEMENT

“I’d like to see us move on unemployment as soon as possible. It would be nice if we could get everything at the same time, but I really do not want to have people lose their supplemental unemployment benefit, whatever that number might be,” he said.

Some Republican lawmakers have floated the possibility of moving a short-term extension of the federal addition to state unemployment benefits, although at a lower number than the $600-a-week boost provided by the CARES Act, the initial virus bill that was signed into law earlier this year.

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiNews media's sausage-making obsession helps no one Klobuchar confident spending bill will be finished before Christmas Five reasons for Biden, GOP to be thankful this season MORE (D-Calif.), however, on Monday dismissed that idea, telling reporters: “Forget it.”

Republican senators don’t want to undercut their negotiating position but privately acknowledge it’s in their interest to cut a deal with Democrats quickly.

“I do want to get something done. The challenges people are facing is now and it’s important that we do our efforts quickly,” said a GOP senator who requested anonymity to comment on the pressure on Republicans to clinch a deal in the next week or two.

The senator cited the expiring boost to unemployment benefits as a problem that needs to be solved as soon as possible.

“The [unemployment insurance] issue is one of the pieces of leverage that forces Congress to work more quickly,” the lawmaker said.

Republicans are well aware that President TrumpDonald TrumpPence: Supreme Court has chance to right 'historic wrong' with abortion ruling Prosecutor says during trial that actor Jussie Smollett staged 'fake hate crime' Overnight Defense & National Security — US, Iran return to negotiating table MORE’s chances of winning reelection, and their chances of keeping the majority, will depend largely on public perceptions of the strength of the economy and how well the president has responded to the coronavirus pandemic.

Trump’s job approval rating is hovering around 40 percent in recent polls and the approval rating of his performance in handling the pandemic was 32 percent in a recent Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll.

Weighed down by Trump’s weak numbers, GOP incumbents are trailing or in dead-heat races in Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Maine, Montana and North Carolina.

Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar AlexanderLamar AlexanderMcConnell gets GOP wake-up call The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Democrats return to disappointment on immigration Authorities link ex-Tennessee governor to killing of Jimmy Hoffa associate MORE (R-Tenn.) noted Tuesday that the start of the new school year is fast approaching and that it will likely take the Department of Education and states about a month to fully implement federal funding to make classrooms and school schedules safer.

“The president and Senate Republicans have recommended $105 billion for back to school and back to college,” he said. “In the South, school is beginning right away and the whole purpose of this funding is to make sure the schools can open safely with as many children physically present as possible. So the sooner the better.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOvernight Defense & National Security — US, Iran return to negotiating table Senate GOP blocks defense bill, throwing it into limbo On The Money — Biden stresses calm amid omicron fears MORE (R-Ky.) on Tuesday called on negotiators to focus on core issues related to responding to the pandemic and to jettison provisions that are not really relevant and are likely to spark political controversy and slow down the talks.

The GOP leader told reporters that he opposes “nongermane” amendments such as the $1.75 billion in funding for a new FBI headquarters in downtown Washington, which the administration asked to be included in a joint White House-Senate Republican relief bill.

“I am opposed to nongermane amendments, whether it’s funding for the FBI building or, for example, in the House bill, whether it’s a tax cut for high-income earners in blue states,” McConnell said.

“When we get to the end of the process, I would hope all of the non-COVID-related measures are out, no matter what bill they were in at the start,” he added.

Democrats on Monday seized on the inclusion of money for refurbishing the FBI headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue in the GOP opening proposal as an attempt by Trump to protect the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue from the possibility that a new luxury hotel might move into the spot currently occupied by the FBI.

The problem GOP lawmakers face is that Democrats will demand a high price for passing a bill that could be crucial to Trump’s chances of winning reelection and Senate GOP hopes of saving endangered incumbents.

ADVERTISEMENT

While Republicans want to cap the next relief bill at $1 trillion, Democrats are calling for $3.4 trillion in new stimulus, with $1 trillion set aside just for cash-strapped state and local governments. Conservatives in the Senate are adamantly against adding trillions more to the exploding deficit.

After receiving a briefing from Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven MnuchinMajor Russian hacking group linked to ransomware attack on Sinclair: report The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Biden jumps into frenzied Dem spending talks Former Treasury secretaries tried to resolve debt limit impasse in talks with McConnell, Yellen: report MORE and White House chief of staff Mark MeadowsMark MeadowsJan. 6 panel plans vote to censure Trump DOJ official Clark Sunday shows - Spotlight shifts to omicron variant Schiff: Jan. 6 panel decision on charges for Meadows could come this week MORE during a Senate GOP lunch meeting, Sen. Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyGOP holds on Biden nominees set back gains for women in top positions Graham emerges as go-to ally for Biden's judicial picks The GOP's post-1/6 playbook is clear — and it's dangerous MORE (R-Mo.) told reporters that the cost of the relief bill is likely to swell significantly. 

“This is not going to be the bill. The chief of staff was just talking about [how] they’re going to negotiate with Pelosi,” he said, predicting the final version of the legislation will bear little resemblance to the joint proposal put together last week by White House and Senate GOP negotiators.

On Tuesday evening, Sen. Ben SasseBen SasseThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by ExxonMobil - House to vote on Biden social spending bill after McCarthy delay CBO releases cost estimate of Biden plan Real conservatives must make a choice MORE (R-Neb.) ripped the Trump administration in a statement: “We have two big government Democrats — Secretary Mnuchin on behalf of the Trump administration and Speaker Pelosi on behalf of binge-spending politicians everywhere —  playing gross games with your kids’ money.”

Another significant obstacle to a quick deal is McConnell’s demand that new legislation include a five-year liability shield to protect businesses, schools, colleges, churches and other organizations from coronavirus-related litigation.

He reiterated his position Tuesday.

ADVERTISEMENT

“There is no chance, zero chance America can get back to normal without … liability protection and no bill will be put on the Senate floor that does not include it,” he said.

“Today we had sort of a message from the Senate side that seems to me that Sen. McConnell really doesn’t want to get an agreement made,” Pelosi said, referencing the GOP leader’s insistence on a liability shield.

“Leader McConnell said that his entire liability provision would have to be — without negotiation — part of any bill that’s going to pass. That is no way to negotiate,” said Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerLawmakers take aim at 'Grinches' using bots to target consumers during holidays Democratic frustration growing over stagnating voting rights bills Schumer mourns death of 'amazing' father MORE (N.Y.).