On the Hill
THE GOP'S BIG GAMBLE: GOP strategists and Capitol Hill staffers don't seem especially worried that inaction on a new coronavirus stimulus bill will damage the Republican Party's hope of maintaining its Senate majority.
They argue there hasn't been a loud public outcry at the lack of another stimulus package, despite the 193,000 U.S. deaths from the virus and no real end in sight to the health and economic crisis. And some are convinced vulnerable Republicans up for reelection in November will get the credit they need for passing the $2 trillion Cares Act in March and for casting a vote last week in favor of the $650 billion “skinny” relief bill that failed to advance.
It’s a big risk, however: Thirteen GOP-held seats are being seriously contested in November and the Democrats need only four net seats to recapture the majority (or three if they win the White House). Republicans only have two real chances to nab Democratic-held Senate seats.
- “The Cares Act was incredibly helpful on the campaign trail,” a GOP official involved in down-ballot races told Power Up. “That said, would it be helpful to pass a bill now? It wouldn't hurt is kind of the point. It wouldn't hurt … Any time you pass anything it’s helpful because you’re demonstrating how effective the U.S. Senate was,” the official said.
- “To be able to secure results for your state? That’s a benefit. But I think what they voted for is certainly helpful for them to talk about,” the official added, referencing the vote for the skinny bill that didn't advance.
Race-rater: Our colleague Amber Phillips reports that Sens. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) are the most vulnerable Republican incumbents, rating their seats as “more likely to flip than not.” Though Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) “remains the most vulnerable senator in 2020,” per Amber, GOP-held seats in North Carolina, Maine, Iowa, Georgia, and Montana are all toss-ups. And the Republican-held seats in Georgia, South Carolina, Texas, Kansas, Kentucky, and Alaska “could flip under the right conditions,” according to Amber.
A poll from Quinnipiac University released yesterday showed promising numbers for Democrats in Maine and South Carolina: Democrat Sara Gideon has opened up a large lead in Maine over Sen. Susan Collins (R) and Jaime Harrison, the Democrat in South Carolina, is tied with Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.). McSally, Gardner, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), and Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), are all in tight races, according to polls, too.
But the political danger posed to their colleagues – and the Senate GOP majority – doesn't seem to be worrying conservative deficit hawks, who so far have been unwilling to get behind a meatier relief bill. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), himself up for reelection, hasn't been able to corral the votes for such an effort and any quest to do so was further complicated by President Trump yesterday tweeting Republicans should embrace a relief bill with “much higher numbers."
- “I’m not sure what higher numbers, what that means. That probably needs to get translated for us,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) told our colleagues Erica Werner and Rachael Bade of Trump's tweet. “But I know kind of what the threshold is for what we can get Republican votes for in the Senate, and I think if the number gets too high, anything that got passed in the Senate would be passed mostly with Democrat votes and a handful of Republicans, so it’s going to have to stay in sort of a realistic range.”
- “I don't think McConnell has the votes,” Alex Conant, a GOP strategist at Firehouse Strategies, told Power Up. “They cannot pass a stand-alone Republican bill because there are conservative members who don't want to spend any more money. Part of it is real politics within the GOP caucus — and not wanting to make concessions to Democrats two months before election, given how much this is about turning out the base.”
- “It doesn't help that the stock market is doing very well,” a GOP Senate staffer told us, adding that the faction of fiscal conservatives “is stubborn about the skinny stimulus and won't go for a bigger stimulus to help us keep the majority.”
- “If the stock market tanked, that might get people off the fence but it hasn’t,” the staffer added.
Some senators and Trump administration officials contend the deficit hawks shouldn't be so concerned about a soaring price tag and extending popular features of the Cares Act like the $600 enhanced unemployment payment that expired in July and the $1,200 direct payment to people under a certain income threshold.
- “Now is not the time to worry about shrinking the deficit or shrinking the Fed balance sheet,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told CNBC earlier this week.
- “I think there's a deal to be had here,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). “ My concern is that the window probably closes at the end of this month and we need to get busy finding out what we can all agree on. And I think the number is going to be higher than our trillion dollars.”
During a briefing with reporters on Wednesday, Trump expressed support – but didn't explicitly endorse – the $1.5 trillion plan by the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus. “The proposal includes a new round of $1,200 stimulus checks to individual Americans, a provision omitted from an approximately $300 billion plan Senate Republicans tried unsuccessfully to pass last week,” according to Erica and Rachael.
- “I like the larger amount, I’ve said that,” Trump told reporters. “Some of the Republicans disagree, but I think I can convince them to go along with that because I like the larger number. I want to see people get money.”
However, Democrats already rejected the proposal for not going far enough and Republicans dismissed it for costing too much.
And Democrats have their own internal problems on the stimulus. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has come under pressure for refusing to back down from her $2.2 trillion offer, “including [from] lawmakers in tough reelection races, over Congressional inaction on new economic relief,” Erica and Rachael report.
- “A growing number of House Democrats continued to expressed the desire for action on legislation of some kind before Congress goes on recess early next month through the election," my colleagues reported.
- “There were some additional signs of movement Wednesday,” per Erica and Rachael. “Pelosi and Treasury [Mnuchin] had their first phone conversation in more than two weeks about coronavirus relief legislation, although it was not extensive, according to Pelosi’s spokesman.”
- “We are encouraged that after months of the Senate Republicans insisting on shortchanging the massive needs of the American people, President Trump is now calling on Republicans to ‘go for the much higher numbers’ in the next coronavirus relief package,” Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement.
A bet Republicans are willing to take: A National Republican Senatorial Committee e-mail sent out yesterday morning highlighted the “angst and growing unrest among House Democrats over Congress' handling of the coronavirus,” as reported by Politico's Heather Caygle, Sarah Ferris and John Bresnahan. “This issue will continue to haunt down-ballot Democrats this fall,” the staffer added.
- “I don't think the public agrees with giving zero dollars to state and local governments, legal immunity for corporations that are negligent, and cutting enhanced unemployment benefits in half,” a Democratic staffer involved in Senate races responded, referring to the GOP's skinny bill. “I think it was unpopular on its own but also Democratic leadership has been calling for negotiations for months now.”
Some still maintain, however, that at the end of the day, Trump still trumps the lack of congressional action at the ballot box.
See Collins in Maine, for example: “The tide has turned on Sen. Susan Collins, who was so popular in Maine that she won nearly 70 percent of the vote the last time she ran,” according to Quinnipiac University polling analyst Mary Snow, per our colleague John Wagner. “Likely voters are sending the message that there’s no ‘middle of the road’ when it comes to President Trump, who is deeply unpopular in the state.”
- “There are so many bigger forces at play here,” agreed Conant. “This is about Trump and how people feel about him and how people feel about how Trump's handling of the pandemic, and then third, the cultural arguments that have nothing to do with the pandemic — they all play a bigger role about whether another round of stimulus relief is passed.”
- “These races come down to Trump,” the Senate GOP staffer told us. “I don't think someone like Tillis can outperform Trump by that many points.”
At the White House
NOT JUST DAYLIGHT BETWEEN TRUMP AND HEALTH OFFICIALS: “The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicted that most of the American public will not have access to a vaccine against the coronavirus until late spring or summer of next year — prompting a public rebuke from Trump, who declared the CDC chief was wrong,” Amy Goldstein and Sean Sullivan report.
- CDC Director Robert Redfield had stuck by Trump’s November or December timeline: But in his congressional testimony yesterday, Redfield stressed that the first doses will be provided to the most vulnerable and then to larger populations as supplies increase overtime. “For it to be “fully available to the American public, so we begin to take advantage of vaccine to get back to our regular life,” he said, “I think we are probably looking at late second quarter, third quarter 2021.”
That directly contradicted Trump's insistent public tease that a vaccine could be available by the start of November and “go immediately” to the public. And Trump threw Redfield under the bus in a later press conference.
Trump said he thinks Redfield ‘made a mistake’:
- “I think he made a mistake when he said that,” Trump told reporters, according to the New York Times. “It’s just incorrect information.” A vaccine would go “to the general public immediately,” the president insisted, and “under no circumstance will it be as late as the doctor said.”
The president also knocked Redfield’s continuing push for more Americans to wear masks. Redfield had testified a mask “is more guaranteed to protect me against covid than when I take a covid vaccine.”
- “The mask is a mixed bag,” Trump told reporters. The CDC continues to recommend mask-wearing and the White House’s own coronavirus task force is recommending Iowa implement a statewide mask mandate to address its outbreak, the Des Moines Register reports.
Meawhile, Joe Biden said he doesn’t trust Trump’s handling of the vaccine approval process: “I trust vaccines. I trust scientists. But I don’t trust Donald Trump,” he said, adding Americans should trust a vaccine developed by the Trump administration only if the president gives “honest answers” about its safety and effectiveness. “And at this point, the American people can’t, either.”
In the agencies
BARR SLAMS HIS OWN DEPARTMENT: In an extraordinary public broadside against his own Justice Department lawyers, the attorney general and Trump acoloyte said he alone should have the power to overrule career prosecutors who he called “headhunters” in search of high-profile cases.
William P. Barr compared some DOJ employees to children: “The attorney general said it was he, not career officials, who has the ultimate authority to decide how cases should be handled, and he derided less-experienced, less-senior bureaucrats who current and former prosecutors have long insisted should be left to handle their cases free from interference from political appointees,” Devlin Barrett and Matt Zapotosky report.
- “Letting the most junior members set the agenda might be a good philosophy for a Montessori preschool, but it is no way to run a federal agency,” he said at an event at an event hosted by Hillsdale College, a school with deep ties to conservative politics.
Former attorney general Eric Holder criticized the comparison:
But Barr wasn’t done:
- He loathed how politicians now accuse each other of crimes, without seeming to appreciate Trump’s contributions to the genre: “Now you have to call your adversary a criminal, and instead of beating them politically, you try to put them in jail,” Barr said, asserting that the United States was becoming akin to an Eastern European country.
- He accused DOJ prosecutors of purposely targeting high-profile people: “I’d like to be able to say that we don’t see headhunting in the Department of Justice. That would not be truthful. I see it every day.”
- And, again, he mocked the Black Lives Matter movement: “They’re not interested in Black lives. They’re interested in props, a small number of Blacks who are killed by police during conflicts with police — usually less than a dozen a year — who they can use as props to achieve a much broader political agenda.”
- And he suggested “that the calls for a nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus were the ‘greatest intrusion on civil liberties’ in history ‘other than slavery,’” CNN’s Katelyn Polantz and Christina Carrega report.
Barr's been busy: He also “told the nation’s federal prosecutors to be aggressive when charging violent demonstrators with crimes, including potentially prosecuting them for plotting to overthrow the U.S. government,” the Wall Street Journal’s Aruna Viswanatha and Sadie Gurman report of a call Barr had with prosecutors last week encouraging to consider using the rarely used sedition law.
TRUMP DID LITTLE AFTER BEING WARNED ABOUT COVID: “A detailed review of the 10-day period from late January, when Trump was first warned about the scale of the threat, and early February — when he acknowledged to author Bob Woodward the extent of the danger the virus posed — reveals a president who took relatively few serious measures to ready the nation for its arrival,” Ashley Parker, Josh Dawsey and Yasmeen Abutaleb report.
- What happened instead: “Enabled by top administration officials, Trump largely attempted to pretend the virus did not exist — spending much of his time distracted by impeachment and exacting vengeance on his political enemies. He also carried on as usual with showy political gatherings and crowded White House events.”
- Trump and White House officials disagree, arguing that the president took definitive steps in the early days of the virus that showed his resolve and helped limit the death toll.
Meanwhile, as the nation approaches the grim milestone of 200,000 deaths: “If you take the blue states out, we’re at a level that I don’t think anybody in the world would be at. We’re really at a very low level. But some of the states, they were blue states and blue state-managed,” the president told reporters in an argument for why his pandemic management has worked.
- A reality check: “It is true that the early surge in deaths was heavily weighted toward states that had voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 … Over time, though, the percentage of total deaths that have occurred in blue states has dropped. The most recent data, through Tuesday, indicates that about 53 percent of deaths have occurred in blue states — meaning that 47 percent have occurred in red ones,” Philip Bump reports.
And top Trump Health and Human Service's aide Michael Caputo is taking medical leave after posting a Facebook Live rant accusing department officials of “sedition.”
- “HHS said in a statement released early afternoon that Caputo would be on leave for the next 60 days to “focus on his health and the well-being of his family,” our colleagues reported. “That means he will be gone until after the Nov. 3 election.”
- “The agency also said that Paul Alexander, a top aide to Caputo, would be leaving the agency permanently. Alexander came under scrutiny in recent weeks for his efforts to exert control over the messages coming from scientists and top health officials, including the content of weekly science reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to make them conform to the president’s assertions that the virus is under control,” they wrote.
Outside the Beltway
SALLY SLAMS FLORIDA, ALABAMA: “Hurricane Sally blasted into the southeastern United States unleashing massive floodwaters and powerful winds along the coast from the Florida Panhandle to Mobile, Ala., that swallowed up roadways and left hundreds of thousands without electricity,” T.S. Strickland, Ashley Cusick and Maria Sacchetti report from Pensacola, Fla.
- “Historic and catastrophic flooding,” that’s what the National Weather Service said unfolded from west of Tallahassee to Mobile Bay in Alabama as seawater charged ashore and rivers jumped their banks.
In the media
WHAT ELSE YOU NEED TO KNOW:
Federal officials stockpiled munitions, sought “heat ray” device before clearing Lafayette Square: “Hours before law enforcement forcibly cleared protesters from Lafayette Square in early June amid protests over the police killing of George Floyd, federal officials began to stockpile ammunition and seek devices that could emit deafening sounds and make anyone within range feel like their skin is on fire, according to an Army National Guard major who was there,” Marissa J. Lang reports.
Big Ten football is coming back: “Five weeks after postponing its football season over safety concerns, the Big Ten Conference reversed course Wednesday, saying it would play this fall even as its colleges and surrounding communities struggle to contain the novel coronavirus,” Rick Maese, Emily Giambalvo and Ben Strauss report.
Remembering Stanley Crouch: “Crouch, a cultural critic whose contrarian and trenchant writings exploring music, politics, race and literature made him a prominent and often controversial figure in American arts and letters, died Sept. 16 at a New York hospital. He was 74,” Matt Schudel writes in The Post's obit.
- “He was a bare-knuckled literary provocateur — erudite, fearless, sometimes reckless, in the view of his critics — while reveling in his often truculent takedowns, often of works by other African American artists and intellectuals.”