Trump abandons pandemic relief, prioritizes partisan court appointment

getty: President Trump

After losing more than 210,000 American lives and 30 million American jobs, President Trump tweeted Tuesday that he “instructed my representatives to stop negotiating [on further economic stimulus] until after the election” and “to instead focus full time on approving my outstanding nominee to the United States Supreme Court, Amy Barrett.” Less than 30 days before the election, Trump couldn’t be making his message to the public any clearer: He and his allies in the Republican Party seem to believe it is more important to place yet another right-wing justice on the Supreme Court than it is to support the millions of Americans struggling to survive through the worst public health and economic crisis since the Great Depression.

It has been clear for months that only one party in Washington has any interest in addressing our shared national crisis. Back in May, House Democrats passed the $3 trillion HEROES Act, which they intended to be a follow-up to the CARES Act (the last major stimulus bill passed by Congress back in March). Although the HEROES Act had many flaws, it offered a starting point for negotiations. Their Republican counterparts in the Senate, on the other hand, spent two months doing nothing to advance any additional relief legislation. It was only a full month after the major provisions in the CARES Act expired in August that the Republican-controlled Senate voted on a partisan $500 billion “skinny” stimulus bill, which then failed to pass the chamber.

There were two major impasses that caused negotiations to stall out in September. The first issue was how to handle the expiration of a $600/week increase in unemployment benefits created by the CARES Act that resulted in some laid-off workers receiving more in benefits than they lost in wages. Democrats wanted to continue the benefit in full to support families in need, while Republicans were concerned the generous supplement would discourage people who were able to return to work from doing so.

The other issue was aid to state and local governments, which have lost significant sales and income tax revenues due to the recession while shouldering higher costs for safety-net programs, such as Medicaid. Democrats wanted the federal government to cover the costs of pandemic-related shortfalls to prevent state and local governments from having to make deep cuts to essential services like they did following the 2008 financial crisis. Republicans opposed this aid because they (incorrectly) believed it would be a “bailout” for the finances of poorly-managed states.

When many in Washington began to give up hope that a compromise between these two approaches could be reached, House Democrats moved to revive negotiations last week by passing a new package of proposals that was more moderate than the HEROES Act they passed four months ago. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) continued to show no interest in compromise, but Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin met House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) with a $1.6 trillion counter-offer that proposed reasonable middle grounds on the two main issues of contention. Mnuchin’s proposal would have increased unemployment benefits by $400/week over pre-pandemic benefits – still more than enough to replace 100 percent of lost wages for the median beneficiary – and included enough aid to help state and local governments cover the budget shortfalls they are projected to face through the end of 2021.

There were still more details to be ironed out, such as how aid would be structured and how many weeks emergency unemployment benefits would last. Speaker Pelosi articulated her outstanding concerns in a letter to her caucus last Friday, which singled out five smaller but not-insignificant disagreements she and Mnuchin hoped to resolve in the coming week. Both sides appeared to be negotiating in good faith and nearing a final agreement to give the American economy the lifeline it needed.

Then Trump abruptly blew it all up, leaving millions of Americans in the lurch so he and McConnell could prioritize the one thing they do care about: packing the Supreme Court with more partisan Republicans just days before voters have a chance to weigh in at the polls. Hopefully those voters will take the opportunity to replace Trump and McConnell with real leaders who will seriously address the real challenges facing our country in these dangerous and unprecedented times.

Ben Ritz is the director of the Progressive Policy Institute’s Center for Funding America’s Future.

Tags Amy Coney Barrett CARES Act coronavirus Donald Trump Heroes Act Mitch McConnell Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Nancy Pelosi Steven Mnuchin Trump U.S. federal government response to the COVID-19 pandemic

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