White House and GOP struggle to unite around virus relief plan

White House and GOP struggle to unite around virus relief planJuly 22, 2020

Senate Republicans and the White House remain plagued by deep ideological divides over major elements of the next coronavirus relief package, creating an opening for Democrats as the pace of negotiations accelerates.

With coronavirus cases soaring across the country, the U.S. economy in near tatters, and elections just over 100 days away, senior White House officials and the Senate GOP leadership have yet to find agreement on big portions of the soon-to-be-released Republican proposal. They’re still undecided on whether to propose a payroll tax cut or how to respond to the end of enhanced unemployment payments for millions of Americans. Those $600-per-week unemployment checks begin to phase out in a few days, a potentially major financial blow to the newly unemployed.

Following a series of meetings Tuesday with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, Senate Republicans remain at odds over the payroll tax cut sought by President Donald Trump, though they appear to have made some progress with the White House on pouring billions of dollars into expanding state-level testing capabilities.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters after a GOP lunch with Mnuchin and Meadows that the path forward for a payroll tax cut remains unclear. Several Senate Republicans pushed back on the idea during the session with Mnuchin, Meadows and White House economic advisor Larry Kudlow, and noted that the cut could take a long time to implement, according to an attendee.

Mnuchin did not spend much time selling the payroll tax cut to GOP senators, according to several Republicans, even as he and the president publicly advocate for it.

“There are some differences of opinion on the question of the payroll tax cut and whether that’s the best way to go,” McConnell said. “And so we’re still in discussions with the administration on that.”

McConnell, who usually has a firm grip on his conference, acknowledged that rank-and-file senators have widely differing opinions on what Republicans should propose as their opening offer to Democrats.

“I’m going to introduce a bill in the next few days that is a starting place, that enjoys fairly significant support among Republican senators — probably not everyone,” McConnell added.

Just before McConnell faced reporters on Tuesday, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) slammed his own party for even considering new spending.

“I just walked out of a meeting that could be sort of a Bernie Bros, progressive caucus,” Paul told reporters. “I’m alarmed that we’re talking about spending another trillion dollars we don’t have.” Already, Congress has approved about $3 trillion in coronavirus relief.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said several senators “were expressing serious concerns that we are spending too damn much money.” During the GOP lunch, Cruz criticized the proposed $1 trillion price tag and said Republicans should focus instead on restarting the economy, according to a source familiar with the discussion.

“What I said to my colleagues is what the hell are we doing,” the Texas Republican said. “We can’t keep shoveling cash at this problem.”

In the meantime, Democrats are highlighting these GOP intra-party divisions as they push for their own massive spending bill. Speaking from the Senate floor Tuesday morning, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) called the GOP’s ideas “inadequate” and said Republicans are “paralyzed by internal divisions among themselves, and by divisions with the president.”

Schumer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) met with Mnuchin and Meadows Tuesday afternoon, the first bipartisan meeting on the next package. But Mnuchin and Meadows emphatically told senators ahead of the meeting that they were not negotiating yet with Democrats.

Schumer and Pelosi emerged from the roughly one-hour meeting with White House negotiators with a clear stance that they would not begin bipartisan talks until Senate Republicans release their plan.

Schumer said Meadows was only willing to outline a general proposal, but with no specifics.

“We can’t negotiate on a vague concept. We need a specific bill,” Schumer said.

“We have a bill, let’s see their bill, and see where we go from here,” Pelosi added. “I think their delay is their disarray.”

Senate Republicans have made some progress after two days of talks with the White House, including pushing back on the administration’s initial vow to reduce funding for state-level testing.

“We’ve had a really good discussion on testing,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who has been involved in talks on the spending side of the GOP plan. “I feel better about that.”

Senate Republicans also don’t appear ready to tie billions in new education aid to whether schools reopen, although schools that offer in-person instruction will be eligible for additional funds. Trump had called for such linkage, but GOP senators said it may be difficult to implement effectively.

And with control of the Senate in play this year, there’s even more pressure on Senate Republicans to deliver. During the Senate GOP lunch, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) spoke up about the vulnerable 2020 candidates and said the process should reflect their needs, according to several GOP sources.

In his floor remarks Tuesday, McConnell said the GOP proposal will include $105 billion for reopening schools, as well as another round of targeted federal funds for the Paycheck Protection Program and direct payments to individuals.

“We need to find the right sort of middle ground that is smart and safe but also more sustainable,” McConnell said. “I have made it clear that any further legislation out of the Senate will be a serious response to the crisis. We won’t be wasting the American people’s time like the House Democrats with their multi-trillion dollar proposal.”

For her part, Pelosi laid out her timeline during a private caucus call with House Democrats Tuesday morning, saying the need for a bill is “imminent.” Pelosi didn’t draw any “red lines” on the caucus call, instead reiterating Democratic priorities including state and local aid and funding for frontline workers and the postal service.

Michael Stratford ,Heather Caygle and Sarah Ferris contributed to this story.

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