McConnell’s sweeping dismissal of Pelosi’s urgent call for action underscored the uncertainty and fierce political warfare in Congress as the coronavirus outbreak shuts down much of the nation and throttles the economy, with little consensus on what should follow the biggest rescue package in U.S. history and lingering tensions from those negotiations between McConnell and Pelosi.
“She needs to stand down on the notion that we’re going to go along with taking advantage of the crisis to do things that are unrelated to the crisis,” McConnell said in an interview with The Washington Post, calling the speaker’s recent comments about a fourth round of virus-related legislation “premature.”
In response, Pelosi said she would carry on.
“The victims of the coronavirus pandemic cannot wait,” she said in a statement. “It is moving faster than the leader may have suspected, and even he has said that some things should wait for the next bill. I hope that we can work in a four corners manner for the common good.”
“Four corners” is a reference to the four leaders of Congress: the speaker, the Senate majority leader and the two minority leaders.
McConnell said his caution on pursuing infrastructure amid the pandemic is driven by his concerns about how Congress would pay for another wave of federal spending — and his position contrasts with President Trump’s plea for a $2 trillion infrastructure package to be part of the next congressional response.
“We do have to be mindful of how to pay for it. There has been a lot of fantasizing on both sides about massive packages,” McConnell said. “We’d all love to do it, but there is the reality of how you pay for it. We just passed a $2 trillion bill, and it would take a lot of convincing to convince me that we should do transportation in a way that’s not credibly paid for after what we just passed last week.”
Citing extraordinarily low interest rates that have reduced the cost of federal borrowing, Trump said on Tuesday that now “is the time” to push forward with infrastructure legislation in response to the severe economic downturn caused by the pandemic.
Pelosi told reporters on a Wednesday conference call that her plan is “probably in the same ballpark” as Trump’s. She outlined a proposal that would add $10 billion for health centers and housing programs on top of the $760 billion infrastructure plan House Democrats unveiled in January, which includes major transportation and water projects, among other provisions.
In the interview, McConnell also defended his claim Tuesday that the House impeachment of Trump and the Senate trial in January “diverted the attention of the government” in its response to the novel coronavirus.
Asked about the remark, Trump told reporters Tuesday, “I certainly devoted a little bit of time to thinking about it,” adding, “I don’t think I would have done any better had I not been impeached.”
McConnell slightly clarified his remarks Wednesday, explaining that he meant to say Congress was distracted by impeachment — not federal agencies or departments that are focused on emergency and health issues.
“We were all kind of preoccupied, I’m talking about the Congress side,” he said. “The administration can speak for itself.”
Pelosi suggested Wednesday that McConnell’s initial comment called into question the actions of Trump and the Senate leader in dealing with the coronavirus.
“I think that’s an admission that perhaps the president and the majority leader cannot handle the job. We have a life-and-death situation in our country, and they should not try to hide behind an excuse for why they did not take action,” she said on CNN.
Moving forward, McConnell said, he is open to beginning bipartisan discussions with Trump and other congressional leaders in the coming weeks to address fallout from the pandemic. But he maintained that any bill passed by Pelosi in the Democratic-led House would be a non-starter ahead of those negotiations.
McConnell said that one of his deputies, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), is ready to “turn to infrastructure” at some point this year. But Barrasso, who chairs the Committee on Environment and Public Works, advanced a highway bill last year that would spend far less than what Pelosi is seeking — $287 billion over five years.
Barrasso, a doctor, said in a brief interview that he has spoken with Trump and McConnell and that he will move ahead on infrastructure only once “we get to a point of recovery” on the pandemic and not sooner.
As congressional leaders deliberate, McConnell said he plans to keep working to confirm as many judicial nominees as possible once the Senate returns to Washington. The target date is April 20 though that may slip during the crisis.
“Not at all,” he said, when asked if that judicial effort will be paused due to the pandemic. “They will continue apace. . . . The Senate is going to be able to do its business.”
Beyond infrastructure, Pelosi has also pushed this week to include a repeal of the cap on state and local tax deductions as part of upcoming legislation, which its supporters say would help Americans who pay tens of thousands of dollars each year. The Republican-authored 2017 tax law capped the amount that households could deduct at $10,000.
“That’s an example of something that has nothing to do with the pandemic,” McConnell said, pledging to oppose the idea in the weeks ahead. “What’s really happening here is, she’s looking for a way to jam us.”
And Pelosi has called for offering all voters mail-in ballots and, if an election is held during a national emergency, sending a mail-in ballot to every registered voter. That proposal was floated during last week’s negotiations but was not included in the final version of the legislation.
McConnell swatted away the suggestion that he might be open to making a deal on election changes this time around and said states should decide how to handle voting.
“For goodness sake, I’ve got a list, too,” McConnell said, rattling off his priorities, even as he resisted promising a Senate GOP version of a fourth coronavirus relief bill, should the House pass a package once Congress reconvenes.
“How about national right to work? How about Davis-Bacon reform? How about ending junk lawsuits against doctors and hospitals? You get the drift,” McConnell continued. “We both have agendas we’d like to see pass — and can’t pass in this current environment.”
Those items, which are supported by the business community and conservatives, would drastically curb the power of unions and trial attorneys. The Davis-Bacon Act, enacted during the Great Depression, requires construction and manufacturing workers to be paid no less than the prevailing wage.
McConnell’s aversion to following Pelosi’s lead is shaped in part by his own experience in the last round of pandemic relief talks, where McConnell saw his framework for Senate negotiations dismissed by the speaker, who instead worked closely with Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
McConnell curtly recalled that Pelosi “sort of parachuted into” the talks on March 22 — at a Sunday morning meeting that he called with all four congressional leaders — and complained that she disrupted the bipartisan setup of task forces that he had arranged. He said her involvement led to a “couple of days of old-fashioned partisanship and party line votes and then everyone sobered up.” Eventually, late last Wednesday, the Senate passed the $2.2 trillion rescue bill by a 96 to 0 vote.
The 78-year-old senator, who is up for reelection, said he takes pride in the outcome of the latest bill and on Wednesday released a campaign ad that touts his role in passing “the biggest economic rescue package in history.”
The 30-second spot says that “in times of crisis, we look to leaders” and features images of him striding through the Capitol and standing behind President Trump as he signed the measure into law last week.
For McConnell and many Republicans, that message represents a dramatic shift from more than a decade ago, when in 2009 McConnell joined most Republicans in voting against the $787 billion stimulus package passed during the Obama administration in response to the economic crisis.
When asked whether the Republican Party has changed on government spending, McConnell said, “Ideological mooring is important, but there are times when you throw ideology out the window and attack, in a very pragmatic and aggressive way, unanticipated problems. And this is the biggest unanticipated problem I’ve ever seen.”
McConnell, who contracted polio as a 2-year-old in Alabama, said that he has thought about his own life in recent weeks and how the polio epidemic affected the nation years ago. The word that keeps coming to mind, he said, is “fear.”
“I was thinking about it with this eerie feeling descending over the country, of the fear that every mother had, according to my mother, of sending their kids out to play in the summer,” he said.
Meanwhile, partisan battles still rage — with strained congressional relations and stinging political accusations.
His outlook on the Senate map is that most races “are largely unchanged” by the pandemic, with “members who were in close races still in close races.”
“We’ll have a campaign and election no matter what,” McConnell said. “Whether it’s a civil war or a world war, we never cancel an election.”
Jeff Stein and John Wagner contributed to this report.