The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Born-again fiscal conservatives are sign of Trump’s weakening hand in Congress

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) calls the initial $1 trillion offering too expensive. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

A growing number of Senate conservatives have provided the latest sign of President Trump’s weakening hand on Capitol Hill.

From the presidentially ambitious Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), to onetime deficit hawks like Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.), conservatives are abandoning the president as his top aides struggle with negotiations on a pandemic relief bill that is Trump’s last, best chance to pass legislation that could help his floundering reelection bid.

Ignoring their own record of support for adding trillions of dollars to the national debt, these conservatives have signaled that they think, in a post-Trump Republican Party, that deficits will return to the forefront just as they did in the first years of the Obama administration.

“We can’t just waste money. So I’m very concerned about the amount of money we’re talking about,” Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) told reporters Tuesday after leaving a GOP huddle with White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

Those Trump advisers negotiated with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for a week until they rolled out proposals that totaled $1 trillion, a figure that left Scott stumped.

“A lot of money,” he said.

Others washed their hands of the negotiations and said that Trump’s advisers would negotiate an even larger compromise with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), whose initial offering two months ago cost $3 trillion.

“It’s a mess. I can’t figure out what this bill’s about,” Hawley said leaving the same meeting Tuesday. “This is not going to be the bill. They’re going to go negotiate with Pelosi. We have no idea what the final bill will be, and we’ll be the last to know.”

And Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), fresh off winning his primary, with Trump’s support, issued a detailed statement that accused the president of trying to use this legislation to save his own campaign, almost suggesting that he would rather Joe Biden win than add more debt.

“The White House is trying to solve bad polling by agreeing to indefensibly bad debt. This proposal is not targeted to fix precise problems — it’s about Democrats and Trumpers competing to outspend each other,” Sasse said.

As pandemic limits scrutiny, GOP fears lesser-known Democratic candidates will steamroll to Senate majority

This group generally supports a relatively modest bill that would reduce the enhanced unemployment benefit, from its current $600 per week to about $200, provide some additional help to small businesses and then grant liability protections to businesses, schools and nonprofit organizations from lawsuits related to the novel coronavirus as they try to reopen.

Some Republicans have suggested a “skinny covid” relief package of extending a smaller unemployment benefit and negotiating the rest of the package in September, a position that Trump signaled support for Wednesday — but one that Pelosi and Democrats have uniformly rejected as insufficient for a national crisis.

Pelosi’s comments drip with sarcasm any time she fields a question about deficit-hawk Republicans, accusing them of hypocrisy given how they handled Trump’s first three years as president and their new budget concerns about $600 a week to the unemployed.

“So, when they talk about $600, I want the review of the fact that they put $2 trillion onto the national debt to give a tax break to the wealthy, 83 percent of the benefits to the top 1 percent,” Pelosi said at a news conference Friday.

She was referring to the 2017 tax cut that Sasse, Cruz and the other Republicans eagerly passed and sent to Trump for his signature.

The debt, which grew from $20 trillion in Trump’s first year in office to more than $26 trillion this summer, has long receded as an issue that animated voters. Conservative groups that used to issue voting scorecards based on efforts to eliminate agencies like the Export-Import Bank lost relevance in recent years, as Republicans joined Democrats in gutting the last bit of spending restraint from a 2011 budget law.

When the pandemic took hold in March, Trump’s top advisers trekked to the Capitol with a directive that fiscal considerations didn’t matter.

“The president has instructed his team to look very expansively at what we need to do and not be impeded by the potential price tag of what’s necessary here,” Eric Ueland, then Trump’s director of legislative affairs, told reporters at the time.

About 10 days later, the Senate unanimously approved the more than $2 trillion Cares Act to try to help with the health and economic crises gripping the nation. A month later, the Senate approved, without a recorded vote, an additional $484 billion for small-business grants and assistance.

Only two GOP conservatives, Sens. Mike Lee (Utah) and Rand Paul (Ky.), voiced any concern about the size of government spending at that point.

Throughout the early spring, Trump’s political standing remained strong — 49 percent of voters approved of his job performance in late March, vs. 45 percent who disapproved — but those numbers steadily dropped later in the spring and throughout the summer.

That has left Republicans split into two camps, those up for reelection this year who are touting all this heavy spending to court voters and those looking beyond 2020.

McConnell falls into the former camp, as he faces the voters this November against Amy McGrath, who remains an underdog but has already shattered state fundraising records. His campaign released an ad Tuesday that shows voters praising the 36-year incumbent for his work to approve the Paycheck Protection Act, designed to help small businesses.

“Mitch is fighting for Kentucky jobs,” a barbecue owner says.

The calculus is clear: During a global pandemic, voters won’t care about the size of deficits if their lives and livelihood depend on government support.

Divided Senate Republicans struggle for a path forward on pandemic relief

Those not on the November ballot are positioning themselves for what they think will be a return to fiscal restraint, fighting a possible Biden administration on its spending measures the same way the conservative tea party movement grew in the early days of the Obama administration.

Cruz, who lost the 2016 nomination to Trump in a bitter fight, berated Meadows, Mnuchin and fellow Republicans at a closed meeting last week over the initial $1 trillion offering, calling it too expensive.

“What the hell are we doing?” Cruz asked, according to a Republican familiar with the remarks who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private conversations.

He told reporters leaving Tuesday’s private luncheon that he did not talk at the meeting, because he had already made his views known.

Even those without presidential ambitions, such as Toomey, expect to oppose whatever Trump’s advisers come up with.

“I have problems with a number of its provisions. I’ll wait and see what the final product looks like, but I’m pretty skeptical about the way it seems to be shaping up,” he said.

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