Senate GOP opens door to smaller coronavirus deal as talks lag

A growing number of Senate Republicans are signaling an openness to putting forward a smaller coronavirus package as bipartisan talks on the next comprehensive COVID-19 relief bill appear to be making little progress.

Talk about either a pared-back agreement, or a short-term extension of expiring provisions, like enhanced unemployment insurance, comes as the Trump administration and congressional Democrats remain far apart on a larger bipartisan agreement. 

“That may need to happen,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). “I mean, ultimately … we’re not going to have a universal agreement in place by Friday, so there may be some things that have to be done that way.” 

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) added that he would be “okay” with a smaller package that would let negotiations continue on unresolved issues. 

“I’m OK with that. We got to fix the employment package because you’re paying people 150 percent more than they were making and that skews the economy. But yeah, I don’t mind doing some interim package,” he said. 

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said he would support a short-term package, adding Congress needed to deal with liability protections and other “essential” items. And Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) added a short-term plan was “an option.” 

“We’re talking about all sorts of options,” he said. 

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows met with a core group of GOP senators — including Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and Senate Health, Labor, Education and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) — a meeting senators characterized less as Mnuchin and Meadows pitching senators on a specific agreement than taking the temperature of lawmakers.  

“They didn’t match a pitch. They were just explaining where they thought we were and asking for ideas,” a GOP senator in the meeting said. 

They added that Mnuchin and Meadows did not repeat Trump’s pitch, which he floated as he was leaving the White House, of doing a smaller deal on an eviction moratorium and unemployment insurance. 

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) questioned what a smaller deal would have to look like for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to agree to put it on the floor. 

“I don’t think there’s any consensus on what [a] smaller package would be to have the support it would need yet, but I think Secretary Mnuchin and Mark Meadows have done a good job and continue to do a good job of reaching out to be sure that everybody has to be a part of that discussion,” he added. 

Blunt added, “I’m sure there are smaller combinations we would like, and smaller combinations we wouldn’t like. It depends on what smaller means.” 

The talk of doing a smaller agreement or a short-term extension of expiring payments like federal unemployment benefits comes as bipartisan talks between congressional Democrats and the administration appear to be making little progress. 

And McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) spent their morning trading shots over who was to blame for the lack of progress.

“But now, the Speaker of the House apparently signaled she rejects this bipartisan consensus and will not let a package go forward unless we continue paying people more not to work,” McConnell said, referring to the $600 per week unemployment boost that was included in the March bill.

Schumer fired back that “it’s abundantly clear that the Senate Republican proposal for the next phase of COVID relief is not a useful starting point” and that McConnell is “drawing lines” by insisting his liability reform proposal get in the bill.

But Republicans say they still want a broader package that would wrap all of the issues into one bill, and there is opposition from some for doing a smaller bill. 

Emerging from a closed-door Republican lunch, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said they were still discussing it as a larger package. 

“There’s no short-term package,” he said. 

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) added after the meeting with Meadows and Mnuchin that he did not support a short-term package. 

“We need to solve the problem,” he said.

Tags Charles Schumer James Lankford John Cornyn Lamar Alexander Lindsey Graham Marco Rubio Mark Meadows Mitch McConnell Pat Roberts Richard Burr Richard Shelby Roy Blunt Steven Mnuchin
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