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Senate Republicans Sidelined in COVID Relief Negotiations
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Senate Republicans Sidelined in COVID Relief Negotiations

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnunchin is working with the Democrats, and some in the GOP are working on alternatives.

Appearing on Fox News Channel’s Special Report Wednesday night after weeks of negotiations with Democrats over the next round of coronavirus relief, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was asked whether a deal was in sight.

“Well, I sure hope so,” he replied with a chuckle. “I think both sides want to get to an outcome. That’s the good news. The bad news is we are a long way apart, and, uh… we’ll see.”

If it wasn’t already clear last week, it sure is now: Congress is beyond late getting to that outcome. The CARES Act’s provision expanding unemployment benefits by $600 a week lapsed at the end of July, meaning the income of about 30 million Americans is currently falling off a cliff, an outcome neither Democrats nor Republicans wanted. But they’ve stalled out over a dollar amount: Democrats want to keep the benefit at current levels, while most Republicans argue it should be reduced to $200 extra a week or 70 percent of a recipient’s previous income. Until they strike a deal, $0 a week is where it sits.

The Census Bureau last week reported that more than a quarter of American adults are in dire housing straits: either they weren’t able to make their last rent or mortgage payment or they don’t expect to be able to pay next month’s. 

“Everything other than the unemployment insurance aspect, I think, would be better left to wait a little while, to get more data and understand how existing programs are working or not, what the economy is doing,” Heritage Foundation economist Rachel Greszler told The Dispatch Wednesday. “But the unemployment insurance part: We don’t want to see a big cliff when there’s still the high unemployment rate out there.”

But negotiations have become terribly snarled. Thanks in part to President Trump’s history of tearing up near-complete legislative deals he doesn’t like, Senate Republicans have essentially relinquished the actual talks with congressional Democrats to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. Yet they hoped the release of their proposed $1 trillion HEALS Act at the end of July would still give them home-field advantage in the negotiations.

“They were hoping this time to have a base text and say [to the White House], all right, we’re going to supply the text, not the House Democrats this time, and you guys are going to negotiate from that,” a senior GOP Senate aide told The Dispatch. “And so that was the entire point of the rollout.”

But the package’s choppy unveiling had largely the opposite effect. Many Senate Republicans oppose any further relief efforts, and McConnell’s struggle to herd his caucus into agreement dragged on for days longer than intended. Republicans remain publicly divided even after their proposal’s release. Watching Republicans flounder, Democrats have shown little inclination to budge on their central demands.  

“They have the votes for practically nothing,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Wednesday on MSNBC. “They haven’t passed anything. They don’t even have the votes within their own 51. They refuse to spend more money, by and large, in the Republican caucus.”

Multiplying Senate Republicans’ woes has been the fact that Mnuchin has shown a disconcerting openness to trading away provisions, like liability protections for reopening businesses and schools, that were top priorities for McConnell but not for Trump.

“Part of the problem here is that Pelosi and Schumer don’t particularly want a deal, and Mnuchin is willing to give up just about anything in order to get it,” said another GOP aide. “So the entire structure of this is completely mismatched. … This is neither [the Democrats’] first rodeo in terms of a high-stakes negotiation, nor is it their first rodeo negotiating with Mnuchin specifically. Neither of them being particularly motivated to strike any type of deal, they’re still able to kind of string things along slowly.”

“I don’t think that anybody really trusts Mnuchin all that much to come back with something,” the senior aide said. “I don’t think he’s got his finger on the pulse of the conference. I don’t think that he really understands how the legislative process works. … I think there’s a feeling that people are like, we’ve got one Democrat negotiating with congressional Democrats on behalf of all the Republicans, and we control two of the three negotiating partners necessary to make a law! So that’s why I think everybody feels a little bit like, what is happening here?”

Largely cut out of the talks, Senate Republicans aren’t just sitting on their hands. Some have been working independently on legislation to try to jostle the logjam free. On Wednesday, Sens. Mitt Romney, Susan Collins, and Martha McSally released a proposal to gradually phase expanded unemployment benefits down from $600 to $300 a week over the rest of 2020, rather than hacking them down to $200 at once. Collins and Sen. Marco Rubio have tried to go around the stalemate to address another somewhat less pressing issue with targeted legislation to beef up the CARES Act’s Paycheck Protection Program.

For now, though, it’s clear Americans will just need to hang on a little longer.

“The only thing that gets an outcome is the speaker and the president of the United States reaching an agreement,” McConnell said. “And once they do that, I believe that the majority of my members will support it, but not every single one of them. I’ve been clear about that from the beginning.”

Photograph by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

Andrew Egger is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.