GOP hunts for leverage in revived COVID-19 talks

Bonnie Cash

Republicans are hunting for leverage in coronavirus negotiations following a weeks-long stalemate between congressional Democrats and the White House.

Nearly a month after talks on a COVID-19 relief package collapsed, neither side has made major concessions. The prospects of a deal now appear increasingly likely to bleed into late September, when Congress faces a separate deadline to avoid a government shutdown.

GOP senators — who came under heavy criticism for leaving Washington without a deal earlier this month — are trying to finalize a smaller, roughly $500 billion package that would include money for the Postal Service, a federal unemployment benefit of roughly $300 a week, liability protections for schools and businesses, and more money for hospitals and testing.

If Republicans can unite behind a pared-down bill, they argue Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) should force a vote on the measure.

The strategy would let Republicans put Democrats on record against coronavirus relief just two months before Election Day — even if the legislation doesn’t bring the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue any closer to an agreement.

“I think we’re going to take another shot at it. We’re very close to having a bill that Republicans are prepared to move on, hopefully as early as next week. Unfortunately, right now, it appears at least that the leaders of the Democratic Party in Congress … decided that electorally it benefits them not to do anything at all,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who crafted the small-business provisions of the legislation, said during an interview with Fox News.

Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) separately told The Hill that if Republicans “can reach consensus on a package, I am for putting it on the floor and allowing senators to be senators.”

Senate Republicans have struggled to unify behind a coronavirus relief strategy; by McConnell’s own estimation, up to 20 GOP senators are prepared to vote against anything. Republicans now hope that by halving their original $1 trillion proposal they can garner more intraparty support, potentially increasing their leverage against Democrats. But even that approach is hitting internal roadblocks, as evidenced by the delay in unveiling a bill that was initially expected about 10 days ago.

“You know the old saying the sight of the gallows concentrates the mind marvelously? A lot of people will say ‘I could never vote for that,’ but when it comes time to do it they vote for it,” Kennedy said about the potential to pick up GOP votes.

The timing of a potential vote is unclear.

Rubio predicted the bill could be ready to move as soon as next week. But the Senate is out of session until Sept. 8, and McConnell has already teed up several nominations as the first order of business upon their return.

McConnell, crisscrossing Kentucky during the current three-week recess, has stressed that he believes another coronavirus deal is needed but has given no indication he will try to bring senators back early for a vote.

Asked about a vote before Sept. 8, a spokesman for McConnell declined to provide guidance on the Senate’s schedule. But aides noted that holding a vote next week would require bipartisan consent — something Democrats would be unlikely to give to a GOP-only proposal.

A spokesman for McConnell said there are no plans to change the Senate’s schedule at the moment, and aides noted that holding a vote next week would require bipartisan consent — something Democrats would be unlikely to give to a GOP-only proposal.

Republicans faced a wave of heavy criticism after the Senate formally adjourned on Aug. 13 without getting an agreement on another coronavirus package — even though most senators had already left the previous week and the House left at the end of July.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is mulling additional executive actions aimed at providing relief to industries hard hit by the pandemic. White House chief of staff Mark Meadows contrasted the forthcoming orders with the impasse on Capitol Hill. The Senate has been unable to pass its own bill, while the $3.4 trillion package passed by House Democrats in May is considered a non-starter for Senate Republicans.

“We’re looking at other executive actions. … We’ve got four executive actions that actually the president took, we’re going to take a few others, because if this Congress is not going to work, this president is going to get to work and solve some problems,” Meadows said during a Politico event when asked about potential airline layoffs.

Negotiations between Meadows, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) fell apart earlier this month after days of closed-door negotiations failed to yield significant progress.

The two sides were unable to reach an agreement on some of the biggest sticking points: the amount of the weekly federal unemployment benefit and how it would be structured, how much new money should go to state and local governments and how to address McConnell’s demand for including liability protections for business, schools, hospitals and other entities.

The trench warfare has sparked weeks of blame-gaming, with no indication that they are moving closer to an agreement.

CNBC-Chance Research poll released Aug. 12 found that among voters in six swing states, 40 percent blamed congressional Democrats for the July 31 lapse in the $600 per week federal unemployment benefit, while 39 percent blamed Trump and congressional Republicans. Eighteen percent said both sides were equally culpable.

Meadows recently characterized rank-and-file Democrats as wanting a deal but that Pelosi is “really driving this train as a conductor more so than anybody.”

Pelosi has taken veiled jabs at Meadows, a former member of the House Freedom Caucus better known for his ability to blow up deals than to make them.

During a recent interview with David Axelrod, Pelosi characterized Meadows’s role in the negotiations as “Dr. No.” During a press conference Thursday, Pelosi characterized Meadows as Mnuchin’s staffer and, at one point, seemed to forget his name.

“We consider whatever his name is — what’s his name? — Meadows there staffing Mr. Mnuchin,” Pelosi said.

The stalemate comes as the coronavirus continues to spread across the country, with roughly 5.85 million confirmed cases in the United States and 180,000 deaths. The pandemic has also ravaged the economy with another 1 million Americans filing unemployment claims last week, according to Labor Department data released Thursday. About 30 million Americans are unemployed.

The next monthly jobs report won’t be released until Sept. 4, a potential pressure point to strike a deal.

But Republicans have resisted calls from Democrats to increase their price tag from roughly $1 trillion to $2 trillion. And there’s no sign that Democrats are feeling pressure to cave.

Pelosi told reporters Thursday that Democrats weren’t “budging.”

Pelosi and Meadows talked later that day by phone for the first time since Aug. 7. Pelosi said Democrats were willing to go down to $2.2 trillion — roughly $200 billion lower than their previous offer. But she appeared skeptical of a quick deal.

“When they’re ready to do that, we’ll be ready to discuss and negotiate the particulars,” Pelosi told reporters. “When they’re ready to do that they’ll let us know. I did not get that impression on that call [that they are].”

Tags Charles Schumer coronavirus relief COVID-19 David Axelrod John Kennedy Marco Rubio Mark Meadows Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Pandemic State aid Steven Mnuchin Unemployment insurance

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