Then, sheepishly, the leader added: “I don’t want the president to fail; I want him to change.”
Of course you missed it because this is not what is happening. As historically minded readers recall, the two quotations above, with the word “Obama” replacing the word “Trump,” came from Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), now the Senate majority leader, in his infamous Oct. 23, 2010, interview with the National Journal.
The underappreciated story in Congress is that it’s Democrats who want to do the most to limit the economic damage caused by covid-19, while McConnell’s Republican Party slow-walks action.
This reality should inform negotiations on the new round of relief that the country requires — and that those most battered by the economic downturn desperately need. The paradox is that if Democrats play hardball on behalf of a larger package and more assistance to the most vulnerable, as they must, they will be making Trump’s reelection a little bit easier.
They should thus insist that the $3 trillion relief bill House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has already pushed through set the terms of the discussion. McConnell can say he’ll ignore the House bill, but guess what? The man who most needs Congress to act is the Republican in the Oval Office. If McConnell wants to foil a genuinely bipartisan agreement, the failure will be on him, his party and his president.
The unusual politics of the moment create an unusual opportunity. The massive collapse of economic activity has brought home the inadequacy of our system of social insurance. Most wealthy democracies have far more robust forms of relief that kick in automatically when times get bad.
Congress should thus be thinking big, as Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) were doing on Wednesday when they introduced a bill that would continue enhanced unemployment insurance benefits until the jobless rate drops below certain levels. They would measure this state by state, so that states experiencing a slower recovery would get help longer. With 33 million Americans either receiving or waiting for unemployment benefits, we know this assistance will be needed well into 2021, and perhaps beyond.
The key question in the coming weeks will be how big the new package will be and whether it does enough to help Americans being hammered the hardest. McConnell will likely agree to support aid to states and localities, if only because Republican governors desperately need it. He may back modest extensions in unemployment insurance, some money for health-care providers and virus research, and maybe new $1,200 relief checks to which Trump can again affix his name.
If he does this and little else, many forms of help will fall by the wayside. Why, for example, do Republicans continue to resist needed funding increases for SNAP, the food-stamp program? Does any Republican really want to say, “The one thing I refuse to do in a deep recession is to make sure that people, especially children, have enough to eat”?
The same logic applies to renters as state moratoriums on evictions expire and a ban on evictions in federally supported housing ends toward the end of July. We also need to increase help for the least well-off through the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit. And Congress should consider the flexible emergency fund proposed by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities to help states target emergency assistance to families confronting dire hardship.
Then there are the millions who are losing their health insurance. Trump continues to ask the courts to destroy the Affordable Care Act. The House went the right way this week by voting to expand it, while Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) wants more federal help for state Medicaid systems coping with the pandemic.
McConnell and his friends will no doubt cry hypocritical tears about deficits they never worry about when they’re handing tax breaks to the wealthy. But, yes, let’s think about the long term: If Congress doesn’t act boldly now, with an amount of money closer to the level the House has proposed, the resulting damage to the economy and to our most vulnerable citizens will linger for many years.
We know the only thing Trump cares about is reelection. He may soon realize that his best interests lie in calling McConnell and telling him: If Pelosi and Schumer are willing to help me, give them what they want.