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Opinion Why Mitch McConnell is trying to kill a big stimulus before the election

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) puts on his face mask after speaking during a news conference in Washington on Sept. 15. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

There’s a frenzy underway in Washington over whether we’ll get another round of stimulus spending to help Americans still struggling from the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. But a lot of it seems disconnected from reality, with regular statements of optimism emanating from key players as they insist a deal could be on its way.

So let’s cut through all that and focus on this unfortunate reality:

  1. Mitch McConnell will do all he possibly can to kill any big stimulus bill before the election. And he’ll probably succeed.
  2. If President Trump wins reelection on Nov. 3, there will probably be a sizable stimulus passed shortly after, with the Senate majority leader’s support.
  3. If Joe Biden wins and Republicans hold the Senate, McConnell will do all he can to strangle the Biden presidency by preventing any big stimulus from passing, no matter how bad the economic misery from the recession gets.
  4. If Biden wins and Democrats take the Senate, we’ll get a big stimulus in the new year.

If you were just following the intense negotiations between Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, you might think a deal could be reached within 48 hours, or this week. Pelosi’s office just announced that the two sides have edged ever closer.

But all that may mean very little, because McConnell simply doesn’t want to pass a big stimulus. He allowed a $500 billion bill to come to a vote Wednesday, knowing that Democrats would all vote against it and it would fail, which it did.

In so doing, McConnell showed a willingness to do the bare minimum to give vulnerable members a way to say they tried to pass something as we slide deeper into disaster. Now that it didn’t pass, they’ll try to blame this on Democrats, while hoping voters don’t notice that Democrats want something four times as big.

Why doesn’t McConnell want to pass something ambitious? One reason, as The Post reports, is that it could “disrupt the Senate’s plans to confirm Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court next week.”

With Republicans potentially losing the White House and Senate, getting a 6-3 conservative majority on the court to block whatever Democrats do and further entrench minority rule is particularly urgent — far more so, needless to say, than passing a big package helping millions of people.

But another likely reason is that McConnell wants to preserve his options for what comes after the election.

By not passing something now, McConnell leaves open the possibility that if Trump is reelected, Republicans can do something bigger to boost the economy under a continuing GOP president. In this scenario, we’d probably get a stimulus during the lame-duck period.

But if Biden wins, this allows Republicans to try to put his presidency in a fiscal straitjacket and cripple him with the horrific politics of a grueling, misery-racked recovery.

In this scenario, we wouldn’t get any stimulus during the lame-duck period. Senate Republicans would have zero incentive to help Biden in a lame-duck session. Their goal will be to undermine him in every way possible, and that will be just the first step.

What happens next in that scenario will turn on a host of factors. If Republicans hold the Senate, they’d try to smother the Biden presidency by suddenly rediscovering their horror at deficits. If Democrats win it, Republicans would try this from the minority, and Democrats might use that to justify nuking the filibuster.

Keep in mind that McConnell’s calculations have nothing to do with principle. They’re entirely instrumental. After all, he signed on to early rounds of stimulus, back when it could help the economy recover from the early coronavirus lockdowns. At that point, it looked like it might help Trump get reelected, which in turn would make it more likely it that Republicans would hold the Senate.

But now McConnell almost surely doesn’t believe a big stimulus would save Trump. And McConnell is fine with taking the blame for the failure to pass one: At this point, it’s too late for it to have a discernible effect in people’s lives before Nov. 3, so it would be unlikely to impact his vulnerable members’ fortunes much.

This extraordinary cynicism penetrates Senate Republicans’ justification for opposing a big stimulus right now. The New York Times reports:

Republicans also fear that a vote on such a measure would force vulnerable senators who are up for re-election into a difficult choice of openly defying the president or alienating their base by embracing the big-spending bill he has demanded.

Everyone simply accepts this as a truism. But why would a big stimulus “alienate the base”? We’ve been told for years that Trump won the GOP nomination in 2016 because he ran as an “economic populist" who contrasted his willingness to support spending in the public interest (infrastructure, safety nets) with the worn-out Paul Ryan-style plutocracy that GOP voters supposedly rebelled against.

Indeed, the new poll from the New York Times and Siena College finds that 56 percent of Republicans support a $2 trillion stimulus plan like the one Democrats want, including aid to states. With Trump calling for the same, do you really think this would “alienate the base"?

Doubtful. Yet it’s widely treated as fact that Republicans don’t dare support a big stimulus because it would alienate their voters. What this really means is that GOP lawmakers think they can get away with using this as an excuse, and their voters won’t notice — even if Trump wants it.

Which brings us to Trump: Given his popularity with the base, can’t he just strong-arm Senate Republicans into doing what he wants? Maybe, but it sure doesn’t look like it. Even he himself doesn’t seem to know what he wants beyond the latest tweetstorm.

Regardless, even if Trump finds the focus to genuinely pressure Republicans, McConnell will do all he can to block a big stimulus from happening. And that’s why the best hope is a full Democratic takeover. A stimulus wouldn’t come until January, which would mean a great deal more misery. But McConnell appears intent on ensuring as much of that as possible.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: Think things are ugly and divisive now? Just wait until 2021.

Jennifer Rubin: Why Senate Republicans deserve to lose many seats

Henry Olsen: Conservatives might be seeing the light on how government aid can set workers up for success

James Downie: Ending the filibuster is about to be more important than ever

The Post’s View: An erratic Trump may have shaken loose stimulus talks. Now all parties must advance with urgency.