A fight over the next round of coronavirus aid is coming to a head as lawmakers prepare to race the clock to get a deal.
Congress faces multiple hurdles to getting an agreement including the growing pull of the November election, a tight schedule and significant policy differences.
Both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) say they think they'll be able to get a deal, but leaders haven’t yet started negotiating and both sides have appeared skeptical of the other side’s key priorities.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said there had been no outreach from McConnell as lawmakers return to Washington for the first time in two weeks.
“McConnell’s office is running a partisan process. ... McConnell is wasting valuable time,” Schumer told reporters. “We have not heard a peep from McConnell or the Republicans or the administration on any proposal.”
Senate Republicans and the White House spent the break swapping ideas, with McConnell expected to lay out the forthcoming GOP proposal to his caucus as soon as Tuesday.
McConnell, speaking in Kentucky, predicted that getting an agreement on a fifth coronavirus relief package would be more difficult, after the first four bills passed the Senate with little or no opposition.
“Making laws is not easy ...This is four months later, we’re much closer to the election. It’s much more challenging politically to get everybody in the same place. So I’m not predicting that our next product is going to be without more, dramatically more, controversy and partisanship,” McConnell said.
Republicans are looking at a price tag of around $1 trillion, though some have put it closer to $1.3 trillion, as they try to lock in their legislation. That’s significantly less than the roughly $3 trillion bill that passed the House in late May, underscoring the challenges awaiting Congress.
“They went from zero to now $1.3 [trillion]. That’s not enough, we need more. But we see the public evolution of their thinking,” Pelosi told reporters.
The debate comes as the country is seeing all-time high levels of daily coronavirus cases, with most states seeing an increase, according to New York Times data. The uptick has raised new questions about children returning to school, and sparked warnings from GOP senators about the spread.
Lawmakers will also be negotiating as polls show sliding support for Trump, in part because of disapproval of his handling of the coronavirus crisis. That could add pressure on Republicans to cut a deal ahead of November’s elections.
The looming differences, and the growing politicization of the coronavirus pandemic, has sparked skepticism on Capitol Hill that the sides will reach a deal in a matter of weeks.
The House is scheduled to be in Washington through the end of the month, though they could delay their departure. The Senate is set to be in through Aug. 7; McConnell has previously indicated he’s not altering that schedule.
Asked if he thought Congress would be able to cobble together a deal before the break, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) paused for 10 seconds before adding, “sure.”
“Even the pandemic is now political. ... It’s politics, politics, politics. Very difficult to get anything done,” he added.
When bipartisan negotiations will be able to begin is unclear. McConnell this week will begin “socializing” the Republican proposal with GOP senators, who have been scattered across the country. But as of Friday the White House and Republicans were still negotiating among themselves. McConnell, who has been talking with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, wants to get a deal amongst Republicans before opening up discussions with Senate Democrats.
“It's not going to be a White House plan, it’s going to be us working with the Senate. We're having detailed discussions with the Republicans and we'll be reaching out to the Democrats as soon as next week,” Mnuchin told The Hill after testifying before a House committee on Friday.
The differences between Democrats and Republicans are numerous and, in many cases, steep. Democrats want to extend a $600 per week increase of unemployment benefits, something viewed as a non-starter by most Republicans who don’t want the benefit to be more than 100 percent of a person’s previous wages. The plus up is set to expire on July 25.
McConnell, speaking in Kentucky, called the plus up a “mistake.” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who has been involved in the negotiations over the forthcoming GOP bill, sidestepped a question about what would be an acceptable alternative, saying “we’re gonna have to work our way through that.”
House Democrats also included approximately $1 trillion in their bill for more help for state and local governments, who have been hit hard as the spread of the coronavirus dried up their tax base. Many GOP senators, however, are opposed to providing more funding above the $150 billion included in the March $2.2 trillion CARES Act.
Republicans are lining up behind providing more flexibility for the money already appropriated. States have asked to be able to use the funds to cover revenue shortfalls driven by the virus closing down or restricting most business.
“I do think there's a lot of feeling that the easiest way to deal with it now is give the states more flexibility with the money they’ve got and we'll have to see what happens there,” Blunt said.
But Democrats view the state and local funds as a top priority. And Pelosi indicated that Republicans have opposed other Democratic priorities including worker protections and expanded food assistance.
The divisions are not just between congressional Democrats and GOP leaders, but also within the Republican caucus. Fiscal hawks are bristling over the idea of greenlighting more money as some Republicans, after embracing big spending, are sounding the alarm over the impact on the country’s debt.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) warned that he thought money from the previous bills needed to be reprogrammed and Congress needed to “actually fix some of the problems” with the previous spending before they agreed to more relief funding.
“I’m happy to pass a bill that redirects and repurposes the $1.2 [trillion to] $1.3 trillion that hasn’t been spent,” he told Wisconsin Public Radio. “Until we actually fix some of the problems with the $2.9 trillion dollars and redirect the $1.2 [trillion to] $1.3 that hasn’t been spent, I would not be in favor of authorizing not even a dime more.”