Democrats seek to exploit Trump-GOP tensions in COVID-19 talks

Democrats are attempting to drive a wedge between President Trump and Senate Republicans in their negotiations over the next coronavirus relief package.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) are employing a divide-and-conquer strategy, betting that Trump’s eagerness for a big COVID-19 bill that could bolster the faltering economy will override Senate GOP concerns about adding trillions more to the federal debt.

Democrats say the White House-Senate Republican unity started showing signs of strain last week after administration officials floated a short-term extension of the $600 per week federal enhancement to state unemployment benefits that lapsed on Friday.

White House officials also signaled Trump would be willing to cut a deal with Democrats on legislation that did not include a must-have for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — legal protections for businesses, schools and health care providers to guard against coronavirus-related litigation for five years.

Schumer highlighted what he sees as divisions between the White House and Senate GOP conservatives after meeting behind closed doors for an hour and a half with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows Tuesday afternoon.

“They’re … not unified. They admit that a large number of Republicans in the Senate will not vote for anything, and we do not know where Donald Trump is. He says a different thing every day, but we’re still slogging through — step by step by step,” Schumer told reporters.

Pelosi on Tuesday predicted Democrats would prevail in getting a large-scale bill passed, despite efforts by McConnell to keep the price tag from exceeding $1 trillion. Democratic leaders say McConnell’s proposed cap falls far short of what’s needed to respond to the pandemic. 

“Are we persistent? Yes. Do we believe that we can get the kind of bold, strong bill that America needs? We do,” Pelosi told reporters.

Mnuchin complained during a lunch meeting with Senate Republicans on Tuesday that Pelosi and Schumer have largely refused to budge from their initial negotiating position.

“I think the comment was he didn’t think they were any closer to a deal than they were this time last week,” said Sen. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), recounting Mnuchin’s report for the GOP conference.

After Tuesday afternoon’s negotiations, when both sides said they’re aiming to strike a deal before the end of the week, Schumer said Republicans and Democrats each gave a little.

“They made some concessions, which we appreciated. We made some concessions that they appreciated,” he told reporters.

Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) noted that the White House has demonstrated more flexibility than McConnell, who is not part of the negotiations, on issues like the weekly $600 federal enhancement to state unemployment benefits and coronavirus-related liability protections.

“Six hundred dollars a week — McConnell came out against it, Trump came out for it. Immunity [from] liability — red line for McConnell, the president said, ‘Not one of our priorities,’” Durbin said, describing some of the signs of disagreements Democrats see between Trump and Senate Republicans. 

“McConnell is facing a caucus that has two very dominant forces: 20 [Republicans] who want zero, not a penny, and a dozen who are up for reelection. Not a good assignment,” Durbin said of McConnell’s difficult job balancing about a dozen to 20 conservatives worried about the deficit and vulnerable Republicans up for reelection who want to shore up the shaky economy.

Durbin said for the White House to say liability reform isn’t one of its top priorities “really undercuts” McConnell and pointed out that the GOP leader is “not the room” when Pelosi and Schumer negotiate with Mnuchin and Meadows.

McConnell told reporters later on Tuesday that he is prepared to accept a deal reached between White House officials and Democratic leaders, even if he’s not entirely happy with the compromise. 

“I am prepared to support, even if I have some problems with certain parts of it,” he said.

Several Republicans have expressed doubts about whether Mnuchin and Meadows can be counted on to hold the line against Democrats.

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) last week compared Mnuchin to “big-government Democrats.”

“The White House is trying to solve bad polling by agreeing to indefensibly bad debt,” he warned, voicing concerns shared by at least a dozen GOP senators.

McConnell acknowledged Friday that “there are 15-20 of my guys that aren’t going to vote for anything” on coronavirus relief.

Democrats feel confident that if they hold pat, Trump will cave and drag at least half the Senate Republican Conference along with him in supporting another multitrillion-dollar relief bill that omits the liability shield McConnell has vowed to include.

“I think we just have to hang fire until they make sense, same thing we did in CARES,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), referring to the record $2.2 trillion agreement hammered out in March between Schumer, Pelosi and White House negotiators. The CARES Act included the $600 per week federal boost to state unemployment benefits that expired last week.

On Tuesday afternoon, Republicans moved closer to the Democratic position when Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) introduced an unemployment benefits proposal that is significantly more generous than what some of his GOP colleagues were talking about last week.

Graham’s proposal would supplement state unemployment benefits with a federal enhancement of $500 per week for the rest of August and all of September. 

Starting Oct. 1, unemployed workers could receive a federal benefit of up to $500 a week on top of state unemployment benefits, but the federal enhancement would be capped so that government support would not exceed 100 percent of the person’s pre-pandemic wages.

Some Republicans fear the Democrats’ strategy to wait them out and count on Trump to acquiesce will ultimately prove successful.

“They’re seeing this and thinking, ‘This is good for us, you know. We’re putting pressure on Republicans without taking the heat ourselves,’” one GOP senator said.

Tags Ben Sasse Charles Schumer Coronavirus coronavirus relief COVID-19 Dick Durbin Donald Trump Josh Hawley Lindsey Graham Mark Meadows Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Pandemic Sheldon Whitehouse Steven Mnuchin Unemployment benefits
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