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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

White House looks at more executive actions as coronavirus-relief talks appear finished

Despite rhetoric, neither party is showing any urgency to compromise

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) walks to his office from the Senate floor on Sept. 8. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

With the Senate poised to vote Thursday on a slender GOP coronavirus relief bill that’s certain to fail, chances for a bipartisan deal on new economic stimulus look more remote than ever. This impasse has prompted top White House officials to consider a new round of executive actions that they hope could direct funding to certain groups amid fears that the nascent economic recovery could fail to gain momentum.

White House officials have discussed efforts to unilaterally provide support for the flagging airline industry while also bolstering unemployment benefits, according to two people aware of the deliberations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share internal policy discussions. The White House has also discussed moving without Congress to direct more money for school vouchers and changing President Trump’s recent payroll tax changes to make it more effective.

Typically, such actions require congressional approval.

In August, Trump signed four executive actions meant to provide more unemployment aid, eviction protections, student loan relief and to defer payroll tax payments. The moves have had mixed success and came as political talks faltered on Capitol Hill.

Since then, the bipartisan urgency that propelled Congress to act with near-unanimity in March and April to approve an unprecedented $3 trillion in relief has eroded even further. In its place is bitter partisan bickering, with each side accusing the other of playing politics and acting in bad faith.

“Democrats just point fingers, call names and keep blocking American families from getting any more help before the November election,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Wednesday on the Senate floor.

The Senate GOP economic relief bill would provide more money for small businesses, $300 weekly unemployment benefits and include a number of other GOP priorities such as lawsuit protections for businesses. It would not include a new round of stimulus checks or money for cities and states, a key Democratic priority. The bill needs 60 votes to advance in Senate, and it is expected to fall short in a procedural vote set for Thursday.

McConnell has been under pressure from a handful of vulnerable GOP incumbents who wanted to vote on a coronavirus-relief measure before going back to their states for the final campaign push. The new bill, even if it doesn’t become law, could aid in those efforts, some Republicans believe.

“I think the opportunity to signal their support for a targeted, responsible and responsive package this week is going to be essential,” said Sen. Todd C. Young (R-Ind.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) questioned McConnell’s motives in putting forward a bill that can’t pass. “Is it because they really don’t want a bill, but a political issue — one that will ultimately backfire on them, I believe?” Schumer said.

Democratic leaders and top White House officials met in July and parts of August to try to reach an agreement on a new economic-relief package, concerned about the impact of expiring unemployment benefits, small business aid and eviction protections. But those negotiations faltered as both sides dug in, and sporadic efforts to revive them have failed.

Asked on Wednesday whether a bipartisan deal was possible, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said he was not sure.

“I don’t know, we’ll see,” he told reporters. “I hope there is. It’s important to a lot of people out there.”

McConnell was similarly noncommittal.

“Well I don’t know. I hope that’s not the case,” the majority leader said when asked if he thought Congress would adjourn through the election without passing new coronavirus relief.

The only negotiations happening are on a stand-alone spending bill known as a continuing resolution, or CR, to keep the government from shutting down in October. The White House and Democrats have signaled a willingness to pass such a measure quickly before heading home to campaign for reelection, although they have yet to reach agreement on how long it should last.

McConnell said Wednesday that he would like to see the stopgap spending bill last into December, but Schumer said no decisions had been made.

“I think both parties want to get out of here and campaign,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) said. “The CR is the next order of big business to do and the cleaner the better, the quicker.”

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said, “My guess would be that if we leave in September with a CR we will not come back to do anything before the election.”

That means any additional unemployment assistance or help for schools, health-care providers, cities and states, individual Americans, or the postal system looks to be bogged down.

Part of the stalemate is because Democrats and Republicans are drawing mixed messages from the economy. Some White House officials believe the stock market’s recovery since late March means the economy has regained its footing. The labor market has recovered roughly half of the jobs lost in March and April, but millions of Americans remain unemployed.

Many Democrats have said much more needs to be done to help the economy, while there is a significant bloc of Senate Republicans who have opposed spending any more money after the unprecedented stimulus in the spring. Pressure from this group forced McConnell to abandon a $1 trillion bill he introduced in July in favor of the legislation that will come to a vote Thursday, which costs about half as much.

Democrats have largely rejected the Senate GOP offering, saying instead that Republicans should negotiate from a $3.4 trillion bill that the House passed in May. That measure included some provisions that the White House supports, such as a new round of stimulus checks for households and small business aid. But the House Democrats’ bill also includes provisions that the White House says it will not accept, such as nearly $1 trillion for states and cities.

Despite polling showing keen public interest in the coronavirus, strategists on both sides say Congress’s inaction has barely broken through in contested House or Senate races.

“Some of the Republicans in the Senate need to be listening and need to feel the pressure from their communities,” said Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.), a freshman lawmaker who flipped a Republican-held district in 2018.

Trump has repeatedly said he would not accept some of the demands from Democrats as part of the economic-relief talks, but he has also made clear he thinks more government assistance is needed to help the economy.

At a White House news conference on Friday, Trump floated redeploying $300 billion in unspent funds in an “account” approved by Congress through the Cares Act. The president was referring to the Economic Stabilization Fund created by Congress in March, which was intended to be loaned to distressed businesses but much of which has not yet been disbursed, according to two people who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

Trump suggested he may be able to use this money without authorization, but stressed his preference is to have Congress sign off on moving the funding to other purposes.

“We have $300 billion in an account that we didn’t use — and we are willing to use that,” Trump said. “I think there is a theory that I could do it without having to go back [to Congress], but I think it would be appropriate to go back, and I would ask Congress to approve it.”

Stephen Moore, an outside economic adviser to the White House, has pushed for the White House to go further in redistributing money without congressional approval, citing President Obama’s unilateral action to shield young immigrants from deportation as a precedent.

Moore said Trump told him that the administration faces resistance to some of these ideas from attorneys at the Treasury Department. A spokeswoman for the Treasury Department declined to comment.

“They’re trying to figure out what they can do legally, what authorities they have, and there are differences of opinion on that,” Moore said. “Trump would like to do another flurry of executive orders that would jump-start the economy.”