Relief talks show GOP divisions

Splits among Republicans are complicating GOP efforts to get on the same page in talks on a coronavirus relief deal, underscoring intraparty divisions ahead of two runoff elections in Georgia next month that will determine the Senate majority.

Some GOP lawmakers on Wednesday expressed frustration that Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven MnuchinThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Goldman Sachs - Biden rallies Senate Dems behind mammoth spending plan Mnuchin dodges CNBC questions on whether Trump lying over election Democrats justified in filibustering GOP, says Schumer MORE has stepped in with a $916 billion offer to Democrats after it was decided that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellHas Trump beaten the system? Yellen to Congress: Raise the debt ceiling or risk 'irreparable harm' The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Goldman Sachs - Tokyo Olympics kick off with 2020-style opening ceremony MORE (R-Ky.) would take the lead in talks with Democrats.

Republican senators say that Mnuchin’s eleventh-hour proposal to include $600 stimulus checks in a stalled coronavirus relief deal — and offset the cost in part by significantly reducing supplemental federal unemployment benefits — has added a big new wrinkle to the talks.

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“It’s not helpful,” said a senior Republican senator, who requested anonymity to speak frankly about the administration.

Mnuchin’s proposal diverged from the consensus position that McConnell outlined at a press conference last week after discussing the GOP position with Mnuchin, White House chief of staff Mark MeadowsMark MeadowsTrump to Pence on Jan. 6: 'You don't have the courage' Trump said whoever leaked information about stay in White House bunker should be 'executed,' author claims 'Just say we won,' Giuliani told Trump aides on election night: book MORE and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin McCarthyHas Trump beaten the system? Yellen to Congress: Raise the debt ceiling or risk 'irreparable harm' Freedom Caucus presses McCarthy to force vote to oust Pelosi MORE (R-Calif.). That proposal did not include stimulus checks.

“A lot of members don’t like it,” Senate Republican Whip John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneFrustration builds as infrastructure talks drag On The Money: Senate braces for nasty debt ceiling fight | Democrats pushing for changes to bipartisan deal | Housing prices hit new high in June Transit funding, broadband holding up infrastructure deal MORE (S.D.) said of another round of stimulus checks, which is projected to cost $170 billion. “Depending on how much the checks are, you would have to drop something out” to keep the total cost of the package below $1 trillion.

“I think most of our members would rather have an extension of the plussed-up UI [unemployment insurance] benefit than having those checks because at least those are going to people who don’t have jobs and right now really need the help,” Thune said.

Yet some Republicans, most notably Sen. Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyNoem to travel to South Carolina for early voting event Competition laws could be a death knell for startup mergers and acquisitions Democrat stalls Biden's border nominee MORE (R-Mo.), a rising star in the party seen as having presidential aspirations, are vocal proponents of stimulus checks. President TrumpDonald TrumpPoll: 73 percent of Democratic voters would consider voting for Biden in the 2024 primary Biden flexes presidential muscle on campaign trail with Virginia's McAuliffe Has Trump beaten the system? MORE is also an advocate for checks.

It’s all an unhelpful development for McConnell, according to another Republican senator who requested anonymity to comment on the leader’s strategy. This senator said the GOP leader’s top priority is to avoid a messy floor fight that would divide his conference shortly before two Senate runoff races in Georgia scheduled for Jan. 5.

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Senate Republicans have to win at least one of the two runoffs to keep the Senate majority in 2021.

McConnell is trying to boil down the negotiations, which have dragged on for months, to a set of issues on which there is broad bipartisan agreement: providing more money for small-business loans, vaccine distribution and resources for health care providers.

On Tuesday, he suggested dropping the two most contentious issues from the talks: $160 billion in new federal funding for state and local governments and liability protection for businesses, schools, churches and other organizations.

Mnuchin’s proposal went in a dramatically different direction. On Tuesday afternoon, the Treasury secretary presented an offer to Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiYellen to Congress: Raise the debt ceiling or risk 'irreparable harm' Freedom Caucus presses McCarthy to force vote to oust Pelosi The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Goldman Sachs - Tokyo Olympics kick off with 2020-style opening ceremony MORE (D-Calif.) that not only included significant spending for state and local governments but also “robust” liability provisions.

Thune on Wednesday said a new round of funding for state and local governments badly divides the GOP conference.

“Based on past members’ concerns and previous votes ... having state and local funding in there would be highly problematic,” he said.

“Having that in there would complicate the Republican vote total,” he added.  

An intraparty fight over state and local funding or a second blast of what Sen. Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyBlack women look to build upon gains in coming elections Watch live: GOP senators present new infrastructure proposal Sasse rebuked by Nebraska Republican Party over impeachment vote MORE (R-Pa.), a fiscal conservative, skeptically called “the money cannon” earlier this year would not be the best way to go into the runoff, the GOP lawmaker said.

“Mitch’s goal is to try to hold the center together until the Georgia runoff. He’s trying to live through this,” the senator said.

Mnuchin’s proposal also had the effect of expanding the number of items on the table instead of shrinking them by floating the idea of $600 stimulus checks.

Mnuchin has previously been a source of friction within GOP circles. Democrats have long seen Mnuchin as more likely to agree to another large relief deal than McConnell.  

The first lawmaker who spoke to The Hill said McConnell, not Mnuchin, should be spearheading the talks with Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerMcConnell pushes vaccines, but GOP muddles his message Biden administration stokes frustration over Canada Schumer blasts McCarthy for picking people who 'supported the big lie' for Jan. 6 panel MORE (D-N.Y.).

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Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonThe Hill's Morning Report - Pelosi considers adding GOP voices to Jan. 6 panel McConnell pushes vaccines, but GOP muddles his message Ron Johnson: 'I may not be the best candidate' for 2022 midterms MORE (R-Wis.) said he would prefer to provide targeted federal assistance to the people who most need it instead of sending out another round of stimulus checks, which would be broadly distributed to all Americans up to a certain income level.

“I agree with the leader,” he said, referring to McConnell, predicting that a $500 billion or $600 billion package made up of funding for a new round of Paycheck Protection Program loans and other targeted assistance would pass Congress. He added that liability protection laws are better left to the states anyway.

“It’s not helpful to have multiple voices,” Johnson added.

McConnell on Wednesday blamed Democrats as the chief obstacle to getting a deal.

“I count no fewer than 10 separate times that top Democrats rejected or blocked various Republican efforts to jump-start this process,” he said on the Senate floor.

A GOP aide noted that Pelosi and Schumer quickly rejected McConnell’s proposal for a scaled-down relief package of consensus items and then also rejected Mnuchin’s expanded $916 billion proposal, including stimulus checks.

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But GOP lawmakers say competing strategies for handling the year-end negotiations creates confusion over what the Republican position is.

Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerHillicon Valley: Democrats introduce bill to hold platforms accountable for misinformation during health crises | Website outages hit Olympics, Amazon and major banks Senators introduce bipartisan bill to secure critical groups against hackers Hillicon Valley: Senators introduce bill to require some cyber incident reporting | UK citizen arrested in connection to 2020 Twitter hack | Officials warn of cyber vulnerabilities in water systems MORE (Va.), a key Democratic centrist, said Republicans have been speaking “with multiple voices” for “months on end” in the fruitless effort to reach a deal on a new coronavirus relief package.

Some moderate Republicans saw Mnuchin’s proposal to Pelosi as helpful to their own effort to advance a bipartisan $908 billion deal, as both plans are about the same size and contain many of the same elements even though there are important differences.

But McConnell signaled last week that he’s not a fan of the bipartisan group’s package, which includes $160 billion in state and local funding and has what many Republicans view as weak language on liability protection.

Asked about it at a news conference, the GOP leader responded: “We just don’t have time to waste time.”