Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was absent from negotiations on a coronavirus relief package, spending Friday in Kentucky at a judicial event with Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh.
Pelosi announced a package that included free testing, paid emergency leave for a limited time, unemployment insurance and increased funds for food stamps. The House was scheduled to vote on the measure later Friday.
McConnell, who has dedicated himself to remaking the federal judiciary through the swift confirmation of conservative judges, joined Kavanaugh at an oath ceremony for U.S. District Judge Justin Walker in Louisville.
Actively involved in major fiscal negotiations during former president Barack Obama’s tenure, McConnell has deferred to others in negotiations since President Trump took office, most notably on ending the 35-day government shutdown last year and working out the amount of spending on bills to fund the government.
McConnell signaled earlier this week that he would take a hands-off approach in the latest negotiations on legislation to address the coronavirus crisis.
“The secretary of the Treasury is going to have ball control for the administration,” McConnell said on Tuesday. “I expect that he will speak for us as well. We’re hoping that he and the Speaker can pull this together so we’re not playing partisan games . . . at a time that cries out for bipartisan, bicameral agreement.”
Pelosi has kept the House in Washington, hoping to get the stimulus package passed out of the lower chamber before the weekend. Her spokesman tweeted Friday that she and Mnuchin had already spoken 13 times by phone as they worked out the final details.
In an interview on CNBC Friday morning, Mnuchin said he had been talking to McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).
David Popp, a spokesman for McConnell, said Friday that the senator had been receiving updates from the treasury secretary. The office declined to say what the extent of those conversations have been, but reiterated that the leader has not been involved in the back-and-forth negotiating.
McConnell’s absence drew criticism from Democrats. Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) called on McConnell to cancel the weekend break and bring back the Senate to vote on a possible relief package from the House.
“It’s pretty basic: when our country faces a serious crisis, the federal government has a duty to act. Yet despite the growing outbreak of the coronavirus, which is threatening the lives of our people and testing the strength of our economy, Mitch McConnell gave the Senate a three-day weekend,” Harris said in a statement Friday.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Thursday after McConnell adjourned the Senate until Monday that sending senators home during a crisis is “so wrong.”
While McConnell gave the Senate a weekend break, he also postponed next week’s scheduled recess.
To date, McConnell has shepherded through 193 of Trump’s nominees to the federal bench, including two justices of the Supreme Court — Kavanaugh and Neil M. Gorsuch.
At the event in Kentucky, McConnell called them “brave public servants who’ve been tossed into the media circus and subjected to partisan attacks,” according to the Louisville Courier-Journal.
McConnell also reiterated his criticism of Schumer, who drew bipartisan condemnation for saying Kavanaugh and Gorsuch would “pay the price” for a vote against abortion rights. Schumer later expressed regret for those comments.
“Just last week, my colleague, the Senate Democratic leader showed an unfortunate spotlight once again on the threat that partisanship poses to our independent judiciary,” McConnell said. “That’s why judges like Justin are absolutely essential.”