Republicans then successfully blocked President Trump’s demand to reduce the withholdings from payrolls as an ill-suited effort to stimulate an economy that remains crippled by the pandemic-forced shutdown. And some Republicans remain lukewarm toward Trump’s call for another batch of federally funded checks sent to individuals and families, although that proposal appears to be in an early draft.
With so many disparate ideas, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) gave up on trying to assemble an ample GOP proposal this week that could serve as the counter to the $3 trillion Heroes Act that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) moved through the House two months ago.
Instead, McConnell and his lieutenants are piecing together something that is likely to lack full Republican support. Its release has been delayed until sometime next week, and Republicans say that these are just initial proposals that are not even considered one large counter to Pelosi’s legislation.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) compared the emerging project to what committee chairs lay down as their initial offer at the start of a long negotiation process.
“This is kind of like a chairman’s mark and a committee. So this is a starting point, not a finishing,” Cornyn said Wednesday. “This is just a starting place.”
Maybe they should just call this “skinny covid relief.”
That’s because McConnell’s moves this week resemble his tactics in late July 2017, when Republicans hit a bitter roadblock over their long-held promise to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.
He desperately needs a better outcome this time, because these are far bigger stakes.
This new legislation is designed to try to create a pandemic testing regimen that would slow the coronavirus’s spread, provide schools and colleges with funds to try to safely reopen and kick-start the economy.
In short, this legislation touches almost every voter’s life, and McConnell is navigating all this as Trump is falling in the polls, taking GOP incumbents with him. It is widely agreed that this is the last major pandemic package that will be considered before Election Day.
In 2017, despite long-standing divisions on health-care policy, Trump and congressional GOP leaders moved right out of the gate to try to repeal the ACA.
House Republicans, in their last two years of the majority, finally passed a repeal in May 2017 that included ending the protection guarantees for those with preexisting medical conditions.
Senate Republicans could barely agree on anything. Most thought the House’s language on preexisting conditions was a political disaster. Some wanted to protect the more than 10 million people who had received insurance through an expansion of Medicaid. Others sought steep cuts to Medicare.
Finally, McConnell cobbled together “skinny repeal,” as insiders called it, just eight pages long and a few basic principles, believing they could buy time to keep negotiating with House Republicans.
Most senators hated the idea. “I am not going to vote for a pig and a poke,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters one early evening, a few hours before he changed his mind and voted for the “pig.”
The late John McCain (R-Ariz.), two days after returning to the Senate after learning he had brain cancer, flashed a thumbs-down in an after-midnight roll call, the decisive vote against “skinny repeal.”
Now, Senate Republicans find themselves trying to bat away some Trump demands that are less popular than “skinny repeal” — but they face the tougher negotiating hurdle of a unified Democratic front behind Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).
The week began with senior Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee panning Trump’s call for a payroll tax cut, which they deem ineffective because it provides only a small weekly bump in take-home pay for those still employed.
“Not a fan of that, I’ve made that pretty clear,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) told reporters Monday.
Thune said he prefers the individual payments over a payroll tax cut, but Cornyn and several other Republicans oppose another round of those checks, which were worth $1,200 in the Cares Act that passed in late March to those making up to $75,000.
Senior Republicans on the Appropriations Committee spent Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday huddled with White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, convincing them of the need to ramp up spending on coronavirus testing and for a more than $100 billion pot to help schools and colleges.
That administration duo emerged from a Wednesday evening negotiation with three GOP senators declaring a tentative deal on that portion of the sprawling measure.
But some conservatives have blown up at the idea of adding another $1 trillion, or much more, on top of the already $26 trillion national debt.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) suggested little needed to be done and simply blamed Democratic governors for keeping economies shuttered.
“Our focus needs to be on recovery, on getting people back in their jobs. And too many Democratic governors and Democratic mayors are playing politics with this crisis and destroying people’s lives,” Cruz told reporters Wednesday.
That’s clearly an outlier viewpoint, as McConnell has already said he stands ready to spend $1 trillion more on what would be the fifth major rescue package in about five months.
But Republicans lose bargaining leverage to Pelosi with their internal divisions.
“We have to get united behind something, and maybe when there’s something very tangible and on paper, we will,” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said while exiting Wednesday’s closed-door GOP lunch.
Yet that huddle only included a polling presentation and a few policy proposals, not a detailed discussion, Cramer said.
And Republicans got just as little feedback on the negotiations during Thursday’s closed-door lunch, talking more about the alligator soup that was served.
“We talked about Louisiana and alligators. Honestly,” Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) told reporters Thursday. “We said ‘Mitch what do you got?’ And he said, ‘We’re working on it. Not much to report yet.’ ”
It’s so confusing that Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) floated the idea of passing a two-month extension of enhanced unemployment benefits that are set to expire July 31 to buy more time to negotiate the bigger pieces of the puzzle.
Sounds a lot like a “skinny covid relief” plan.