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McConnell works to lock down GOP votes for coronavirus bill

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe bizarre back story of the filibuster The Bible's wisdom about addressing our political tribalism Democrats don't trust GOP on 1/6 commission: 'These people are dangerous' MORE (R-Ky.) is working to wrangle his caucus behind a pared-down coronavirus relief bill, with top GOP senators predicting they’ll be able to win over at least 51 Republican votes this week.

The decision to force a vote on Thursday follows weeks of behind-the-scenes negotiating between the White House and congressional Republicans on a smaller package that could unify the party after high-profile divisions and with the elections looming.

But even if McConnell is successful, the GOP bill won’t get the 60 votes needed to advance in the Senate. Democratic leaders and Trump administration officials remain hundreds of billions of dollars apart on a new coronavirus package.

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Still, Republican leadership wants, and appears increasingly confident of getting, 51 votes, a stark turnaround from McConnell’s previous prediction that up to 20 of his 53-member caucus wouldn’t support any additional COVID-19 relief.

“I think our conference will be unified. ... We will have virtually the entire conference,” said Sen. John CornynJohn CornynPolitics, not racism or sexism, explain opposition to Biden Cabinet nominees Biden pledges support for Texas amid recovery from winter storm Partisan headwinds threaten Capitol riot commission MORE (R-Texas), an adviser to McConnell. “Certainly we’ll have 51 or more votes.”

Asked if he thought Republicans could get 51 votes, Sen. Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyGrassley to vote against Tanden nomination Grassley says he'll decide this fall whether to run in 2022 Yellen deputy Adeyemo on track for quick confirmation MORE (R-Iowa) said, “The answer is yes.”

“Everybody’s been working real hard because we want to get something that we can get on the floor,” he said. “I think just the feeling that we’re in the majority and people expect us to deliver.”

Others were more circumspect.

Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneAfter vote against coronavirus relief package, Golden calls for more bipartisanship in Congress Graham: Trump will 'be helpful' to all Senate GOP incumbents Cruz hires Trump campaign press aide as communications director MORE (S.D.), the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, indicated talks could go down to the wire, saying they would know where the votes are when they’re scheduled to vote.

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“We’ll know by Thursday,” Thune said with a laugh. “We’re talking to a number of members, and you know those discussions have been productive.”

The GOP proposal includes a $300 per week federal unemployment benefit, another round of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funding, $105 billion for schools and an additional $16 billion for coronavirus testing.

It does not include a second round of stimulus checks or more money for state and local governments, both of which were included in the record $2.2 trillion CARES Act from late March.

McConnell has had to balance competing factions within his caucus while crafting the smaller bill.

He previously indicated he wants to vote on a package to allow a slew of vulnerable Republicans to vote on a proposal they can tout back in their home states during the final weeks of the 2020 campaign. Some incumbents, including Cornyn and Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsCollins urges Biden to revisit order on US-Canada border limits Media circles wagons for conspiracy theorist Neera Tanden Why the 'Never-Trumpers' flopped MORE (R-Maine), had previously indicated that they didn’t think the Senate should have left for the August recess without an agreement on a relief measure.

But the $1.1 trillion package introduced by Republicans in July sparked high-profile backlash from conservatives and fiscal hawks within the party, make it harder for the GOP to gain leverage in their talks with congressional Democrats.

McConnell declined to say on Tuesday whether he thought he would be able to get 51 Republican votes for the bill, even though it includes several concessions to conservatives.

The measure includes two years of education-related tax credits sought by Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzNoem touts South Dakota coronavirus response, knocks lockdowns in CPAC speech Sunday shows preview: 2024 hopefuls gather at CPAC; House passes coronavirus relief; vaccine effort continues Texas attorney general hits links with Trump before CPAC appearance MORE (R-Texas), as well as a one-time grant for scholarship organizations that could be used for covering educational expenses like homeschooling costs and private school tuition. Sen. Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleySunday shows preview: 2024 hopefuls gather at CPAC; House passes coronavirus relief; vaccine effort continues Texas attorney general hits links with Trump before CPAC appearance The Memo: CPAC fires starting gun on 2024 MORE (R-Mo.) had been pushing for the inclusion of a tax credit for home-schooling expenses.

Sen. James LankfordJames Paul LankfordRepublicans see Becerra as next target in confirmation wars Overnight Health Care: US surpasses half a million COVID deaths | House panel advances Biden's .9T COVID-19 aid bill | Johnson & Johnson ready to provide doses for 20M Americans by end of March 11 GOP senators slam Biden pick for health secretary: 'No meaningful experience' MORE (R-Okla.) also got a provision included in the bill to expand the amount of charitable deductions that can be taken off the top of a person’s yearly income at tax time.

Some GOP senators who had opposed the first Republican package indicated on Tuesday that they were supportive of the new bill or at least inclined to back it.

“It’s something I hope 53 Republican senators vote yes on,” said Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonGraham: Trump will 'be helpful' to all Senate GOP incumbents Partisan headwinds threaten Capitol riot commission Cruz hires Trump campaign press aide as communications director MORE (R-Wis.), adding that Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven MnuchinOn The Money: Schumer urges Democrats to stick together on .9T bill | Collins rules out GOP support for Biden relief plan | Powell fights inflation fears Mnuchin expected to launch investment fund seeking backing from Persian Gulf region: report Larry Kudlow debuts to big ratings on Fox Business Network MORE “accommodated” some of his concerns about the initial GOP bill.

“I do intend to support it,” added Sen. Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyPhilly GOP commissioner on censures: 'I would suggest they censure Republican elected officials who are lying' Toomey censured by several Pennsylvania county GOP committees over impeachment vote Toomey on Trump vote: 'His betrayal of the Constitution' required conviction MORE (R-Pa.).

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But there’s likely to be at least one GOP vote against the measure.

Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulOvernight Health Care: 50 million coronavirus vaccines given | Pfizer news | Biden health nominees Rand Paul criticized for questioning of transgender health nominee Haley isolated after Trump fallout MORE (R-Ky.) indicated that he was a no, saying he wasn’t for “borrowing any more money.”Democrats panned the bill even before Republicans released the legislative text Tuesday afternoon, underscoring the significant stalemate that remains on getting a deal on another coronavirus relief package.

Talks between Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerThe bizarre back story of the filibuster Hillicon Valley: Biden signs order on chips | Hearing on media misinformation | Facebook's deal with Australia | CIA nominee on SolarWinds House Rules release new text of COVID-19 relief bill MORE (D-N.Y.), Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiMcCarthy: 'I would bet my house' GOP takes back lower chamber in 2022 After vote against coronavirus relief package, Golden calls for more bipartisanship in Congress Democrats don't trust GOP on 1/6 commission: 'These people are dangerous' MORE (D-Calif.), Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark MeadowsMark MeadowsHow scientists saved Trump's FDA from politics Liberals howl after Democrats cave on witnesses Kinzinger calls for people with info on Trump to come forward MORE derailed in early August amid divisions on both the price tag of the bill and key policy provisions.

Schumer and Pelosi, in a joint statement Tuesday, warned that the so-called skinny GOP bill is “headed nowhere.”

“If anyone doubts McConnell’s true intent is anything but political, just look at the bill. This proposal is laden with poison pills Republicans know Democrats would never support,” they added.

The two sides are far apart on specific policy proposals, including unemployment insurance and more help for state and local governments, where Democrats want $915 billion and the White House has offered $150 billion.

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They are also deeply divided on the top-line dollar amount. Democrats have lined up behind the $3.4 trillion House-passed bill, but they’ve offered to come down to $2.2 trillion.

Senate Republicans introduced a $1.1 trillion package in July, but Meadows said late last month that Trump would sign a $1.3 trillion bill. The White House is reportedly preparing to support a $1.5 trillion price tag.

But Republicans are hoping to use Thursday’s vote to put pressure on Democrats by forcing them to go on the record against a relief package at a time when the virus has killed nearly 190,000 people in the U.S.

“We’re going to get the stonewalling of Democratic leaders out from behind closed doors and put this to a vote out here on the floor,” McConnell said. “Senators will not be voting on whether this targeted package satisfies every one of their legislative hopes and dreams. ... We vote on whether to make laws, whether to force a compromise.”