GOP cool to White House’s $1.6T coronavirus price tag

The latest White House coronavirus relief offer, with a $1.6 trillion price tag, received a cool reception Thursday from congressional Republicans.

The new offer from Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, which exceeds the original $1.1 trillion Senate GOP package and the $1.5 trillion the White House signaled it could support last month, was made as part of renewed talks this week with Democratic leaders.

But Republicans, including influential chairmen and members of leadership, are warning they can’t support it, creating another potential obstacle for negotiators trying to strike a deal on emergency COVID-19 aid after nearly two months of stalemate.

Asked about the prospect of supporting a $1.6 trillion measure, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) was direct: “No.”

“I think we’ve made it very clear that there’s so much money … that isn’t even out of Washington yet,” Grassley said. “We’re more in the neighborhood of something below $1 trillion.”

Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, the top Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, also appeared unsure he could back a bill with that dollar amount by criticizing the inclusion of a $400 per week federal unemployment benefit.

“How much wasteful spending will we have to swallow to do this?” he said during an interview with Fox Business Network on Thursday.

The pushback comes as Republicans have struggled to unite behind a strategy on the coronavirus relief talks. Senate Republicans initially unveiled a $1.1 trillion package in late July but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) warned that he could lose up to 20 of his 53 GOP senators with that measure.

But Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), a member of GOP leadership, predicted Thursday that if there were going to be a deal it would be closer to $2 trillion than $1 trillion.

“We need a bill that half of our members can vote for. It kind of depends on how you structure it,” Blunt said, while suggesting that using unspent money or tying spending to future economic activity could be a way to keep the price tag lower.

Others said they want to see the details for a $1.6 trillion package, but acknowledged that was more than they would want to spend.

“It depends on what’s in it. That’s more than I would want to spend, but I do think it’s important to get something done,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).

Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), said he would want to see the details, but acknowledged that a higher price tag would be “harder” for Republicans.

“The higher the price, the fewer Republicans and that’s true … but the substance also matters,” Cramer said.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said he “would support a rational compromise,” but declined to say if he thought $1.6 trillion met that definition and instead wanted to see the specifics.

A GOP bill in August that cost roughly $500 billion garnered support from every Senate Republican except Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.). The measure was blocked by Senate Democrats.

To get a deal with congressional Democrats, Republicans would have to increase their price tag, not lower it. House Democrats passed a $3.4 trillion bill in May, and Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) have said they would be willing to go down to $2.2 trillion.

Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, appeared skeptical that GOP senators would be willing to put up the 13 votes to pass a coronavirus relief deal costing around $1.6 trillion.

“As the price goes up, the Republican vote total goes down. … If you start pushing beyond even that level where Senator McConnell started with the HEALS Act, I think it gets much harder to get Republican votes,” Thune said, referring to the $1.1 trillion package.

“Could you pass it? Maybe? But you’re going to pass it with 47 democrats and 13republicans and that’s – depending on what that number is, I don’t know where the 13 republicans would come from,” Thune added.

McConnell has appeared deeply skeptical that the renewed talks between Pelosi and Mnuchin will lead to a deal.

“I think Secretary Mnuchin and the Speaker continue to speak, but we’re very, very far apart,” he told reporters during a press conference Wednesday.

Asked on Thursday about the White House-Pelosi talks, McConnell added: “I’m wishing them well.”

Tags Charles Schumer Chuck Grassley John Cornyn John Thune Kevin Brady Kevin Cramer Mitch McConnell Rand Paul Richard Shelby Roy Blunt Steven Mnuchin

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