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Endangered GOP senators under pressure as Senate considers new coronavirus measures

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) dons a face mask after the weekly Senate Republican Policy Luncheon at the Hart Senate Office Building on June 23.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) dons a face mask after the weekly Senate Republican Policy Luncheon at the Hart Senate Office Building on June 23. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The spiraling pandemic and the increasingly virulent politics around Washington’s handling of the novel coronavirus are raising the pressure on Senate Republicans as they try to craft a fresh coronavirus relief package.

As the Senate returns this week for a three-week sprint before the August break, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is facing competing demands from President Trump and Republican senators, including some who are up for reelection in states hit hard by the virus and are coming under withering attacks by Democratic challengers over the pandemic.

In particular, the expiration of an additional $600-per-week in unemployment insurance by July 31 is adding pressure on vulnerable GOP senators as 20 million to 30 million people remain out of work. McConnell and many other Republicans adamantly oppose extending the enhanced benefit at its current level, saying it discourages some from returning to work because they make more money by staying home.

The Trump administration has further upended talks over the relief bill by trying to block billions of dollars for states to conduct testing and contact tracing, angering some Republican senators. Some White House officials argue that they have already approved billions in funding for testing and that some of that money remains unspent.

The election-year politics over the pandemic will be entwined with the contours of the next coronavirus package — a complicated dynamic McConnell will have to manage along with disputes within his conference over aid to states and localities, as well as a persistent negative view by the public of the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic.

“We have to — together — get through this by making sure that people are able to get back to work, that businesses are able to survive, that individuals know that they’re going to be okay,” endangered Republican Sen. Cory Gardner (Colo.) said in a phone interview.

Ahead of a stimulus spending fight between Senate Republicans and House Democrats, elected officials spoke on July 19 about the spread of the coronavirus. (Video: The Washington Post)

Gardner said his constituents are pressing him for more federal assistance and said he supports extending the enhanced unemployment benefit, although he is open to an amount less than the additional $600 per week. He said he is also open to Democrats’ demands for more aid for states and localities, although he didn’t specify how much. McConnell’s proposal, as of now, is not expected to include new money for state and local aid, but rather flexibility for how cities, states and towns use their existing aid.

The first-term Republican senator, who is facing former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper (D) on Nov. 3, said he conveyed his request to McConnell in a call Thursday, pressing for the next relief package also to include more support for nationwide coronavirus testing.

Another at-risk Republican senator, Susan Collins of Maine, told reporters in her state last week that she is seeking more state and local aid — particularly for towns with smaller populations — and a fresh round of aid for small businesses and education funding to help schools reopen. She wants to continue expanded unemployment insurance, but only just enough that the money makes up for lost wages. Countering many in her party, she stressed that “now is not the time” to worry that another costly rescue package will add to the rising debt.

Nearly all Republican candidates’ standing has fallen somewhat in the past month, according to strategists involved in Senate races, except perhaps for Gardner and Collins.

All those factors will be taken into consideration as Congress rushes into the next phase of coronavirus legislation this week. McConnell is expected to unveil a pandemic relief proposal as early as Tuesday with a target value of $1 trillion, although some Republicans speculate that the figure could be larger. Extra attention is likely to be paid to the demands of vulnerable Republican senators, GOP officials said.

But there are several complicating factors. Trump is insisting on a cut in payroll taxes, which fund Social Security, as part of the next package, although few Republicans are warm to the idea and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has repeatedly expressed opposition.

The parties will also haggle about education aid. The White House and Senate Republicans want to attach incentives or conditions to tens of billions of dollars in new aid to help schools reopen, although Republicans are still debating whether to pursue carrots or sticks.

Also, the package is expected to include some sort of stimulus check for consumers — a maximum of $1,200 was included in the last major bill — but the size of the payments is not yet clear.

“There may be a need for a broad-based payment of individuals like we did last time,” Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), the fourth-ranking Senate Republican, told reporters late last week. “But for sure, there’s a need to try to figure out how to have a more of a target in the recovery phase of the economy than [we] did in the March rescue phase.”

The prime red line for Senate leaders has been liability protections. McConnell has a plan that offers schools, charities, businesses and medical workers a legal shield from being held responsible in coronavirus-related lawsuits unless there was gross negligence or intentional misconduct, according to a draft viewed by The Washington Post. The proposal has been shared with White House officials, who are reviewing it.

Meanwhile, the states that have had the most dramatic spike in cases include Arizona, Georgia and Texas, all of which have Senate races in varying levels of competitiveness and where Democratic opponents have made the pandemic a central theme in their campaigns.

“David Perdue and Donald Trump have nothing to run on but widespread disease, mass unemployment, a record of being wrong and being wrong such that Americans lose their lives, millions have lost their jobs,” said Jon Ossoff, who is challenging Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) in November. “David Perdue will lose in November when his record is exposed.”

Perdue emphasized in a statement that he is seeking liability protections and more flexibility in aid for small towns in the next relief package.

“While Democrats, like my opponent, are spreading false information to score political points during this crisis, my top priority is to protect the people of Georgia so we can continue to safely reopen the economy and start to get kids back to school,” Perdue said.

In Texas, Democrat MJ Hegar has repeatedly hammered Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) for his response to the pandemic and comments the senator made this year that Democrats say minimized the severity of the crisis.

“He said it was a mistake to expand unemployment insurance, and I’m not confident that he would support it again,” Hegar said in a phone interview. “That’s not a handout. That is our country, our capitalist economy responding to the economic crisis. So he should be thinking more about what is best for his constituents and not what Mitch McConnell tells him to say.”

Travis Considine, a Cornyn campaign spokesman, said Cornyn opposes just the enhanced unemployment insurance and added: “Senator Cornyn has delivered billions in relief for Texas hospitals, front-line workers, schools, and small businesses hit by the pandemic. MJ’s false attack is just another example of her sticking to the script national Democrats have written for her.”

In Arizona, where case numbers are surging dramatically, polls have shown GOP Sen. Martha McSally well behind Mark Kelly, her Democratic challenger. Kelly, a former astronaut, has begun targeting ads toward Native American communities in the state, arguing that the federal government is ignoring their needs in the pandemic. He is calling for extending the enhanced unemployment benefit; McSally has not taken a position on the issue, according to a spokeswoman.

Kelly has also called on Congress to provide direct relief to Arizona’s cities and towns. McSally has declined to back the additional aid, instead saying she supports “maximum flexibility” for money already distributed, which could allow localities to spend the money on services not specifically related to the coronavirus.

Republicans are facing a somewhat unusual situation in Montana, where Sen. Steve Daines has found himself under increased pressure as his Democratic challenger, Gov. Steve Bullock, uses his gubernatorial perch to steer the state through the pandemic. Bullock declared a state of emergency and shut down schools, bars and restaurants early in March, then reopened the state early in late April.

For a long time, the rural state had among the lowest infection rates and is now among the top three in economic growth, according to the Labor Department — a feat touted by Bullock and the governor’s office. But in recent days, Montana has been among the cluster of states where cases have been rising, a fact Daines’s campaign has pointed out to reporters in a bid to cast doubt on Bullock’s statewide response.

Steven Law, a former top McConnell aide who heads the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC supporting Senate Republicans, said GOP incumbents have been effective in showcasing their response to the pandemic, including the trillions of dollars Congress has provided to support all elements of the economy.

Law said the public has been eager to hear from incumbents on coronavirus-related achievements that might otherwise gain little notice. This has also allowed them to create their own profiles on the issue, separate from that of the president.

“This class has been unusually forward-leaning in being part of the solution,” Law said, “And more importantly, being forward-leaning in communicating about it.”

Coronavirus: What you need to know

The latest: The CDC has loosened many of its recommendations for battling the coronavirus, a strategic shift that puts more of the onus on individuals, rather than on schools, businesses and other institutions, to limit viral spread.

Variants: BA.5 is the most recent omicron subvariant, and it’s quickly become the dominant strain in the U.S. Here’s what to know about it, and why vaccines may only offer limited protection.

Vaccines: Vaccines: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone age 12 and older get an updated coronavirus booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant circulating now. You’re eligible for the shot if it has been at least two months since your initial vaccine or your last booster. An initial vaccine series for children under 5, meanwhile, became available this summer. Here’s what to know about how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections and booster history.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. The omicron variant is behind much of the recent spread.

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