McConnell seeks to protect vulnerable Republicans with COVID-19 vote

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is hoping to give vulnerable GOP colleagues political cover by voting as soon as next week on a pared-down Republican bill that would provide coronavirus relief to schools, businesses and unemployed Americans. 

The GOP leader told fellow Senate Republicans during a conference call Tuesday morning with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows that senators in tough races want to vote on a rescue package ASAP, according to a person familiar with the call.

“McConnell wants it. McConnell said today is that every member who’s up [for reelection] who has any hint of vulnerability wants a bill that gets 51 votes,” the source said on Tuesday.

House Democrats, who passed a $3.4 trillion coronavirus relief package in May, have repeatedly hit Senate Republicans for not bringing their own bill up for a vote. After the initial $1.1 trillion version was unveiled by Republicans in July, several of the 53 GOP senators who are not up for reelection raised concerns about the price tag.

While the legislation would need 60 votes to advance, even a simple majority in favor would be seen as a GOP victory.

Republicans are worried their Senate majority is at risk in November because of President Trump’s low approval rating in many battleground states. They also have to defend 23 seats, while Democrats only have to protect 12.

Senate Republicans see a vote on a smaller relief bill as a chance to go on offense while helping vulnerable Republicans like Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who are hoping to deliver for constituents heading into the final stretch of the fall campaign.

“Moderate Democrats, especially in the House, are pushing for something like this, and it puts Democratic leaders in an awkward position,” said a Senate GOP aide.

The aide was one of two who confirmed the legislation is not expected to include another round of $1,200 direct payments like the ones included in the CARES Act from late March. The House-passed bill from May would provide a second round of stimulus checks, as did the initial GOP bill that sparked conservative backlash.

Senate Democrats are expected to block a Republican-drafted relief bill if it comes to floor because, among other reasons, it would not include significant aid for state and local governments beyond the $105 billion to help colleges and schools resume classes this fall.

If Democrats block a bill that includes money for schools and expanded testing, Senate Republican leaders hope that could be used as potent campaign ammunition against Democratic candidates.

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have called for $915 billion in new spending to help cash-strapped state and local governments.

The Senate Republican legislation is estimated to cost at least $500 billion, according to Senate GOP aides, though one source said its price tag could be as high as $700 billion.

The measure would provide money to help colleges and schools resume classes, $190 billion for a second round of Paycheck Protection Program loans to small businesses, assistance for unemployed workers, expanded COVID-19 testing and child care assistance, according to GOP sources.

It will also include language to protect colleges, schools, religious and nonprofit organizations, and businesses from coronavirus-related lawsuits. The provision would set a standard of willful misconduct or grossly negligent behavior for suits.

In a departure from the $1.1 trillion HEALS Act that Republicans introduced earlier this summer, they are now discussing how to help private schools during the pandemic.

One option would be to provide vouchers or scholarships to help private schools that are battling with public schools for a share of federal resources for the resumption of in-person classes. 

Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Barrasso (Wyo.) said Tuesday the goal is to vote on the legislation after senators return to Washington next week following the August recess. 

“We have a focused, targeted solution that we hope that the House would pass and the House would agree to,” he said after presiding over an early-morning pro forma session.

Barrasso said the GOP legislation would be “focused on getting people back to work, getting kids back to school.” 

He said “it leaves out” what he called “the so many things that Pelosi has put in her bill that are unrelated to coronavirus.” 

Barrasso, who spoke to a reporter before the GOP conference call with Mnuchin and Meadows, said the “goal” is to vote on what is being called a “skinny” coronavirus relief bill next week. But he cautioned it needs to muster enough support from Republican senators.

“We’re having a conference call every morning. We have one again today with Secretary Mnuchin and the White House chief of staff to go over that, and that’s the goal — is to come back and vote to move that,” Barrasso said.

One Senate GOP aide said there is growing support for voting on legislation soon after Labor Day. The bill now being contemplated, however, doesn’t yet appear to have the 51 Republican votes it needs to be hailed a symbolic victory. 

“It depends entirely on whether we get to 51,” the aide said about the prospect of McConnell putting a relief bill up for a vote as soon as next week.

A second Senate GOP aide said: “The aim is definitely to do something next week.”

“The weeks we have left are dwindling,” the source noted of the legislative days on the calendar before the election, a work period during which Congress will also have to pass a stop-gap funding bill to avoid a government shutdown. 

Mnuchin told Fox Business on Monday that McConnell would introduce a new Republican coronavirus relief bill in the coming days.

“Hopefully Mitch will enter new legislation next week,” Mnuchin said.

Tags Chuck Schumer coronavirus relief COVID-19 Donald Trump John Barrasso Maine Mark Meadows Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi North Carolina Pandemic Steven Mnuchin Susan Collins Thom Tillis Vulnerable Republicans

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