McConnell’s stimulus waiting game turns into race against clock

Register now

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell waited until a key component of U.S. coronavirus aid was about to expire before drafting the Republican version of the next major relief bill, a decision that is increasingly looking like a significant miscalculation.

Soaring numbers of virus cases, rising jobless claims and President Donald Trump’s slumping poll numbers have left McConnell in the rare position of struggling to unite Republicans behind a $1 trillion plan as the $600-a-week federal boost to unemployment insurance expires.

It’s a time crunch of their own making. Republicans and Trump have squabbled all week over the details of the plan, forcing McConnell (pictured) to delay the release of the GOP proposal until Monday. That gives Congress little time to avoid a lapse in the unemployment aid.

The expiration is now less of an inducement to get Democrats to the negotiating table than a potential albatross they will try to drape around the necks of endangered Senate Republicans.

There were signs of frustration among some of McConnell’s colleagues.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin touted a “fundamental agreement” among Republicans on a package of spending and tax cuts, and some Republican senators said they were expecting to see bills released as soon as Thursday. When it was clear that wasn’t going to happen, they waited for details at lunch.

Instead, they got alligator sausages courtesy of Louisiana Senator John Kennedy and little more.

“We talked about Louisiana and alligators,” South Dakota Republican Senator Mike Rounds said. “Honestly. We say, ‘Mitch, what do you got?’ And he said, ‘We’re working on it. Not much to report yet, but we’re working on it.’”

Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican who opposes the stimulus plan, said after the lunch that “We just found out that we weren’t going to find anything out.”

Senators left Washington for the weekend with no bill text and plenty of details still to iron out. Even once that’s done, McConnell still needs agreement from Democrats, who’ve proposed spending $2.5 trillion more than the GOP on a broader swath of initiatives.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, meanwhile, were playing hardball, rejecting the idea of a stopgap unemployment bill that had been floated by some in the GOP, and blaming Republicans for waiting two months to come up with their own bill.

“One of the reasons we are up against this cliff is that Republicans have dithered,” Schumer said.

It’s not clear at this point the delay will substantially shift the end product, given Republicans were going to have to negotiate with Democrats at some point anyway.

For McConnell, the ground shifted dramatically from a few months ago, when he said Republicans wanted to press “pause” on more stimulus. Congress had already passed nearly $3 trillion in relief, and Republicans hoped that the virus would start to fade in the summer and the economy would rebound, allowing either a narrowly crafted Republican bill or none at all.

But talk of “if” they needed another bill became “when” in recent weeks as virus cases, hospitalizations and deaths rocketed, particularly in red states in the South and West, including key presidential election battlegrounds Florida and Arizona. That’s caused a tentative economic recovery from the business shutdowns in March to stall.

The growing political peril for Republicans has been apparent for weeks. Trump’s approval in the RealClearPolitics average of national polls has dropped from 47 percent at the end of March to 42 percent as of Thursday.

Democrats lead Republicans by 9 percentage points on a generic ballot question in polls and Democratic challengers have been topping fundraising numbers for incumbent Republicans in key states. On Thursday, the non-partisan Cook Political Report for the first time this year said that Democrats are now favored to take back the Senate and warned of a potential “tsunami” against the GOP.

While McConnell said this week the economy needed another shot of “adrenaline” and backed a further round of direct payments to taxpayers, aid to schools and health care, his flock has been divided over everything from the details of an unemployment extension to the price tag.

‘Bernie Bros’?

Johnson said he simply doesn’t want to spend any more money and plans to oppose the bill he hasn’t seen. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas told CNN he’s a “hell no” on a $1 trillion package, while Rand Paul of Kentucky told another reporter that Republicans were acting like “Bernie Bros” behind closed doors as they discuss among themselves how many hundreds of billions to spend, a reference to ardent supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist.

Trump himself has made it harder to reach a deal.

He complicated the GOP talks for days by demanding a payroll tax cut that has few fans in Congress before dropping it. And the administration resisted Republican plans to step up testing and other health efforts. The president even reiterated at a press conference Thursday his plan to rebuild the FBI headquarters in downtown Washington — not exactly a pandemic priority.

Worries among Republicans that they would catch the blame for checks stopping for millions of workers across the country had them briefly discussing another temporary patch in the middle of the week before dropping the idea. Senators like Cruz and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina warned against what they consider to be excessive aid, arguing they were hurting the economy by paying people an extra $600-a-week unemployment bonus.

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows outlined one possible fallback position to reporters Thursday, suggesting separately passing a supplemental unemployment insurance and aid for schools while negotiators continue to look for a bigger deal.

Democrats were largely on the outside looking in on the Republican scrum. Schumer declared Democrats united behind the $3.5 trillion plan passed by the House with far larger checks going out to individuals and workers and aid to states than Republicans are willing to contemplate.

“Here we are, still waiting for the Republicans to put together a partisan bill that will never become law just so they can muster up the courage to negotiate,” Schumer said Thursday.

— With assistance from Laura Litvan, Erik Wasson and Billy House

Bloomberg News
Mitch McConnell Tax refunds Donald Trump Chuck Schumer Steven Mnuchin Coronavirus
MORE FROM ACCOUNTING TODAY