The Senate returns to session later this month with just three weeks before its summer recess – and will have to reconcile lingering GOP divisions and major disagreements with Democrats in order to pass another massive recovery package in the heat of an election year.
Many on Capitol Hill are skeptical anything will pass.
Republicans in the Senate, led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, are starting to piece together their own package. But it comes after weeks of ignoring Democratic demands to move more urgently as Republicans have argued they needed to assess how roughly $3 trillion in already-approved stimulus money was being spent.
Sources involved in the talks said Wednesday that discussions centered around a GOP plan roughly one-third of the size of the $3 trillion proposal House Democrats pushed through their chamber in May. Republicans are looking at a plan in the range of $1.3 trillion, sources said, though they cautioned that number could change.
Sen. Patty Murray, the Senate’s No. 3 Democrat, told CNN Wednesday that such funding would be “inadequate” to meet the needs of millions of jobless Americans as well as hospitals, the education system and others hurt by the pandemic ravaging the country.
“They have to recognize where we are as a country,” the Washington Democrat said of the GOP, citing the rise of coronavirus cases in the US. “If they ignore that, they are ignoring the public safety, health and well-being of our nation. And I will fight them.”
The differences between the two sides are enormous – both over the scope of what’s needed as well as the details of the policy. Republicans demand liability protections for businesses opening up in the pandemic, an idea Democrats reject. Democrats want roughly $1 trillion for state and local governments – a number that the GOP says is far too high as many states have not exhausted their existing emergency aid. Democrats want another round of enhanced unemployment benefits, something top Republicans say would discourage businesses from rehiring.
And amid President Donald Trump’s demands to reopen schools, Vice President Mike Pence suggested that the White House wants state and local aid conditioned on schools reopening, just as Senate Democratic leaders have proposed $430 billion to assist with schools reopening. Republicans are looking at a small fraction of that amount, potentially in the range of $30 billion.
“It is unclear to me right now how we will resolve several contentious issues,” Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, told CNN Wednesday. “Until McConnell begins to negotiate with Democrats, we are not going to get anywhere. … It’s going to be a rough road. There are a lot of competing interests. A lot.”
“It needs to start now or it’s not going to be able to get done,” said Murray, who is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, referring to bipartisan negotiations.
McConnell’s refusal to begin bipartisan talks over the last several weeks “has created needless uncertainty and pain for millions of families who are still reeling from the public health and economic crises,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Wednesday.
Indeed, bipartisan talks have yet to begin, as McConnell instead seeks to get Republicans on the same page with the White House.
In appearances in Kentucky this week, McConnell has laid out broad outlines of the GOP plan, which include liability protections for companies, aid to schools and money for hospitals and businesses. On Wednesday, McConnell himself rejected the price tag put forward by Democrats – “It won’t be $3 trillion,” he said – and predicted the next round of talks would be “more contentious than the last one” due to the proximity to the 2020 elections.
“There’s a lot more elbowing going on,” McConnell said to reporters in Winchester, Kentucky. “We will be, as we try to work our way through this, confronting more headwinds because of the proximity to the election.”
White House demands for schools to reopen
On Wednesday, Pence added a new wrinkle to the talks. He suggested that the White House would seek to condition money for state and local funding on demanding schools reopen, something GOP sources said Wednesday they were just beginning to discuss how to write into a legislative proposal.
“As we work with Congress on the next round of state support, we’re going to be looking for ways to give states a strong incentive and encouragement to get kids back to school,” Pence said.
Democrats were perplexed.
“I don’t know what he’s talking about,” Murray said. “The most important thing is that we actually make sure students, our families, our educators stay safe and determine how to reopen either in person or distanced learning. … So I don’t know what he’s saying. You just have to randomly open schools and take your chances or you’re not going to get any state aid? I mean that’s an absolutely no.”
Murray added: “I mean if they really cared about our kids getting educated they would be saying how do we safely reopen? … That’s not how they’re presenting this. I just find it outrageous.”
Pressure on GOP leadership
Bipartisan support is essential for passing any legislation, since 60 votes would be needed to overcome a Democratic filibuster in a chamber where the GOP has 53 seats. Moreover, to get a bill to Trump’s desk, they would have to get consensus with the Democratic-led House, which has pushed through its $3 trillion plan that the GOP calls unserious and deeply flawed.
Republican aides and committee chairs are working through the two-week Fourth of July recess to try and cobble together a consensus bill the GOP can agree on. According to aides, the White House has asked Senate Republicans to present them with a legislative framework for the next package by Friday.
Pressure is building on GOP leadership to find a path forward, as some Republican lawmakers up for reelection show eagerness to pass another stimulus bill with voters struggling amid the pandemic.
“There are still tremendous needs,” said Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine and one of the most vulnerable Republicans in the Senate. “There are needs for more testing and that is expensive. Schools are reopening, and I saw an estimate from the state of Maine, and it is an enormous amount of money for schools.”
Collins added: “Towns and cities are experiencing huge revenue shortfalls, and I think we need to have some funding go directly to them and not through the state. The Postal Service is saying it is not sure if it is going to have enough money to make its payrolls and those are frontline workers.”
But, Republicans are still negotiating among themselves with no clear timeline over when they will seek to hammer out a deal with Democrats who they need to pass stimulus legislation. Some believe Republicans will seek to advance their own plan and bring it to the floor for a debate, which Democrats could very well block.
“The key right now is to try and get the White House and Republicans on the Hill in the same place,” said Senate Majority Whip John Thune, a South Dakota Republican. “To get anything passed, we got to get it through the House and 60 votes in the Senate, so outreach to Democrats will happen at some point. But I think right now, they’ve already got a bill out there, so I think Senate Republicans are doing this assessment and determining where we think the greatest needs are going to be.”
Disagreements within the GOP
Republican priorities in another stimulus package are focused on getting students back to school, providing districts with funding to retrofit classrooms, expanding busing, providing more protective equipment and bolstering testing to ensure schools can help stop the spread of the virus.
But while Republicans are eyeing billions for school funding, the party is also divided on other key issues like whether to give states and localities more flexibility to use money they’ve already appropriated. Moderates argue that states are in dire need of more assistance in order to keep government employees and essential services working. Meanwhile, conservatives are dead set against giving states any more flexibility to reprogram funds they fear will be used to cover bloated pension plans and other spending.
Another area Republicans are still grappling with is how to handle the expiration of an additional $600 in unemployment benefits that run out at the end of the month. Some Republicans want the program to cease completely while others argue there should be a phase out or incentive to get workers back on the job. Democrats have argued the program is important to help those who are still out of work because of the pandemic.
Republicans are also taking stock of what money remains unspent. The massive Main Street Lending Program intended to boost medium-sized businesses has largely sat untapped and there is still $130 billion left from the Paycheck Protection Program meant to go to small businesses. Plus Republicans are also still undecided about whether to approve another round of individual stimulus checks, something many Democrats are seeking.
“As far as the White House is concerned, everything is on the table, and I guess you have to assume everything is on the table with us in the Senate,” Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said of stimulus checks. “I think there is going to be a bill. How big? It depends on what happens to the economy.”