Senate Republicans are deeply divided over their own coronavirus package, underscoring the uphill challenge for the party as they hunt for leverage in talks on the fifth stimulus bill.
GOP leadership and the White House unveiled their own approximately $1 trillion bill this week, in what was supposed to represent a unified negotiating stance by the administration and Senate Republicans as they start talks with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.)
But just a day later, several GOP senators are trashing their own party’s proposal, which they expect will only get worse during talks with Democrats, and predicting mass defections on the final coronavirus bill.
“It’s a mess. I can’t figure out what this bill’s about,” said Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.). “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.”
Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) added that among Republicans “we have unity in disagreement.” Meanwhile, Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said the negotiations were taking place between “two big government Democrats,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Pelosi.
“This proposal is not targeted to fix precise problems — it’s about Democrats and Trumpers competing to outspend each other,” Sasse said.
Republicans say it's basically guaranteed there will be GOP defections on the fifth relief bill. Two GOP chairmen predicted that roughly half of the 53-member caucus could ultimately vote "no."
“You can see a bunch of people already pushing back that we haven't spent phase three yet and concerns about the deficit,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a close ally of President Trump’s. “If Mitch [McConnell] can get half the conference, that'd be quite an accomplishment.”
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of GOP leadership, added that “the previous COVID bills have passed almost unanimously, and I think that’s the exception rather than the rule.”
Significant Republican opposition would mark a U-turn from March’s $2.2 trillion coronavirus bill that passed the Senate in a 96-0 vote. Other coronavirus bills have passed with only a handful of "no" votes.
Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Republican senator, said it was too soon to know how much GOP opposition there would be but that it wouldn’t be unanimous support.
“I don’t think we know where our members are yet. I mean, it’s early on in a process that is probably going to take a while to fully conclude,” Thune said. “We’re not going to be able to write a bill that we get every Republican on, we know that.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows would take the lead in the talks but acknowledged that GOP senators were divided.
“I think it’s a statement of the obvious that I have members who are all over the lot on this,” McConnell said. “This is a complicated problem. We’ve done the best we can to develop a consensus among the broadest number of Republican senators.”
Republicans raised concerns during a closed-door GOP lunch about the price tag of the coronavirus deal growing. Republicans stuck to their goal of a $1 trillion top line, but GOP senators are worried that it will tick upward as Mnuchin and Meadows negotiate with Democrats.
“There’s a lot of discussion, expressed concern, that we stick to the lower number of a trillion rather than start talking already about where we might land. ... Too much drift to the left, you lose more Republicans and pretty soon you’ve put the whole process in the hands of the Democrats,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.).
Graham added that “people [are] worried about the top-line number” and “the amount to be spent is a concern.”
GOP senators are publicly pouring cold water on either key provisions or the plan altogether, which came together during weeks of closed-door negotiations.
“I have problems with a number of 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,” said Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.).
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said that he was “very much” concerned and there was “vigorous discussion” and “sharp disagreement” among Republicans. Meanwhile, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) accused his colleagues of caring about election chances than the country’s fiscal health.
“This was the big spending, big government meeting,” Paul said. “They’re bragging about how they’re going to spend more money than the Democrats.”
Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) said he was “unlikely” to support the final agreement, adding, “I think the price tag is going to be a deal breaker for many of us regardless of the content.”
With coronavirus cases climbing across the country, and a slew of bad poll numbers coming out for Trump and Republicans in critical Senate races, Democrats believe they have leverage to drive the talks closer to their top line of roughly $3 trillion.
“We have the leverage of the American people,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “I think Republicans are reading the polls. The president is slumping, their Republican Senate candidates are slumping in the polls. They have to show something.”
The divisions aren’t just between Senate Republicans but also GOP senators and the White House.
GOP senators are critical of the decision to include $1.75 billion for the construction of a new FBI headquarters, saying it has nothing to do with combating the coronavirus. And McConnell and Thune both say they want the funding out of a final agreement.
Trump, during a White House press conference on Tuesday, called the GOP proposal “sort of semi-irrelevant.” Asked if there were parts he opposed he said “yeah, there are.”
Meadows and Mnuchin are both floating the idea of doing a pared-down coronavirus bill if negotiators aren’t able to get a deal quickly. Under that plan, Congress would pass a package that includes unemployment insurance, school funding and liability protections, and then continue to negotiate on other pieces like stimulus checks, state and local aid and money for testing.
But Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said while people have floated it, "I don't hear any support for that."
When a reporter noted that Meadows and Mnuchin seem interested, he added that those are “people who are not in Congress.”
The inability to sync up played out in real time this week. Mnuchin and Meadows, after talking to Schumer and Pelosi, walked over to McConnell’s office.
Surrounded by their detail and a gaggle of reporters, they knocked on the front door to his main office. No one answered. As they knocked again, a reporter asked if they had a meeting with the GOP leader or his staff.
“We were just going to give the leader an update if he’s here,” Meadows told reporters, adding that it was an impromptu drop-by.