GOP hunts for ‘Plan B’ as coronavirus talks hit wall

Republicans are hunting for a backup plan on coronavirus relief as bipartisan negotiations tasked with finding a deal appear to be making no measurable progress. 

The discussions come as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows have met every day this week with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) but are, in their own words, “nowhere close to deal” and “very far apart.” 

With the clock ticking — the House was supposed to start a five-week break on Friday and the Senate on Aug. 7 — Senate Republicans and the White House are floating myriad alternative ideas as they try to figure out how to break the logjam. 

Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, said that if they can’t get one large agreement, they’ll have to look for a “Plan B” — just don’t ask what that would be. 

“I don’t think so at this point,” Thune said, asked if there was a consensus on what the alternative could be. “There are a lot of different ideas floating right now. Nobody has settled on anything. We’re just listening and seeing where things go.” 

Republicans unveiled their own proposal on Monday after weeks of negotiations. But that package quickly faced steep headwinds, with several GOP senators pouring cold water on it and even President Trump calling it “semi irrelevant.” 

Now, the president, top administration officials and Republican senators are floating everything from a pared-down package to an attempt to force a vote on a short-term extension of federal unemployment benefits, which are set to expire on Friday. 

A previous relief package gave those getting unemployment insurance a $600 increase. Republicans want to lower the number, but with no action, the entire enhancement will disappear after this week.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) acknowledged that he has roughly 20 members who oppose the package and appeared to open the door to a smaller bill in hopes of getting a deal quickly.

“Well, I certainly hope not. Neither side would like for that to happen. … Many things around here happen at the last minute. This is only Wednesday, so hope springs eternal either on a broad basis or a more narrow basis to avoid an adverse impact on unemployment,” McConnell told “PBS NewsHour.” 

Asked if he was seriously looking at either a small bill or a short-term option, he added, “We’re looking at all options.” 

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who helped craft the GOP package, said he didn’t want to have to do a smaller deal but that “there’s a couple of crisis things that are coming up here next week.” 

“One would be the unemployment ending, and obviously you know we want to continue that. … The other thing is the evictions are going to, the prohibition on evictions is going to end. And that’s going to be a hardship for a lot of people. And especially, it should be easy to reach some compromise on unemployment because I even heard … Leader Hoyer say that they can go below $600,” Grassley said, referring to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). 

The chatter about trying to put together a smaller bill, or even a short-term unemployment extension, gained steam this week when Trump appeared to endorse the effort. 

“You got to work on the evictions so people don’t get evicted. You work on the payments to the people. The rest of it, we’re so far apart we don’t care,” Trump told reporters Wednesday as he left the White House. 

Mnuchin and Meadows have been signaling that they would accept a smaller deal focused on unemployment benefits and funding for schools. 

“We are still very far apart on a lot of issues. I do think there’s a subset of issues that we do agree on,” Mnuchin told reporters. 

Several Republican senators on Wednesday also said that they were open to a smaller package. 

The chatter about trying to put together a smaller bill is a U-turn from earlier this week. 

“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 was “OK” with a smaller package. 

“I’m OK with that,” he said. “I don’t mind doing some interim package.”

Some Republican senators floated bringing a short-term stand-alone extension of the unemployment benefits to the floor, in what would amount to a pressure tactic to make Democrats go on the record to block it. Republicans had also floated the idea last week, but Meadows and top GOP senators shot it down.

“Seems like the unemployment insurance is the key factor. … I think there could possibly be a vote on that by itself,” Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) told reporters after a closed-door lunch. 

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) also pitched his colleagues during a closed-door lunch about doing an unemployment extension. 

“I would suggest … $600 a week for the next month, $400 a … week for the next month after that, and then move to the income replacement model of 80 percent of what people previously were making,” Romney said. 

But Meadows specifically told reporters that Democrats were not on board with the idea and that unemployment benefits will formally expire on Friday. 

Instead, Meadows and Mnuchin reiterated that they would focus on trying to get a smaller agreement on areas where they believe there is agreement such as schools and Paycheck Protection Program funding. 

“The president is very focused on unemployment … and making sure that renters either have some type of assistance or we deal with the eviction issue. So the president has encouraged us to try to see if we can deal with that issue,” Mnuchin told reporters. 

He stressed that there was no agreement between Democratic leadership and the White House on any particular issue but that there were areas of commonalities on issues such as education, worker retention tax credits, rental assistance and some money for banks. 

The smaller package being floated by the two administration officials notably does not include liability protections, which McConnell has said has to be in a bill in order for it to get a vote on the floor. 

Talks between Mnuchin, Meadows, Schumer and Pelosi have appeared to hit a wall, with no clear path to a breakthrough. 

Emerging from their third closed-door meeting in as many days, both sides painted a picture of negotiations that are making no progress and in many ways appear to be growing more antagonistic as more time goes on. 

“We’re nowhere close to a deal,” Meadows told reporters late Wednesday afternoon. 

Asked how the path to a deal got unlocked, he added, “I don’t know that anything does.” 

But there’s no sign that even a smaller agreement is the path that could break the current stalemate. 

Democrats were equally bleak about the prospect of an agreement after the latest round of talks. 

“They come back with a piecemeal approach that doesn’t recognize science,” Pelosi said of Mnuchin and Meadows. 

Schumer added, “We’re trying to get them to come to a coherent position. We don’t even know what their position is. … You can’t negotiate against a ghost.” 

Mike Lillis contributed. 

Tags Charles Schumer Chuck Grassley Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump Evictions John Thune Lindsey Graham Marco Rubio Mark Meadows Mike Braun Mitch McConnell Mitt Romney Nancy Pelosi Steny Hoyer Steven Mnuchin Stimulus Unemployment
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