‘It’s a mess’: Republican senators deride key proposals in GOP virus packageJuly 29, 2020
Senate Republicans complained on Tuesday about key provisions in the GOP-authored coronavirus relief bill one day after its unveiling, as Democrats panned the proposal as a non-starter.
The jockeying on Capitol Hill underscores how far apart both parties remain — and the treacherous path Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell faces as he confronts internal GOP divisions and kicks off negotiations with Democrats.
“It seems to me that Sen. McConnell really doesn’t want to get an agreement,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said after an hour-long meeting in her office with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Meadows Tuesday afternoon.
The group will meet again tomorrow but Pelosi didn’t sound optimistic about reaching a deal anytime soon.
“What we’re doing now is really airing our differences — this discovery and understanding where there might be opportunity or not,” Pelosi added.
Meadows, as he and Mnuchin left McConnell’s office Tuesday evening, said he believes the negotiations are in the “second inning.” Mnuchin added that both parties were still “in the beginning” of the talks, saying he and Meadows were then headed to the White House to brief the president.
Meadows said Democrats are holding firm on the $600 in increased weekly federal unemployment benefits and $915 billion in additional state and local aid.
On the other side of the Capitol, GOP senators rattled off several concerns with the $1 trillion package in public remarks and during a private lunch with senior Trump administration officials on Tuesday. Their gripes with the bill ran the gamut, from frustrations at the price tag to the process by which the bill was written and released. There were even objections over an unrelated provision the White House sought that allocates nearly $2 billion in funding for the construction of a new FBI headquarters in downtown Washington, D.C.
“I think if Mitch can get half the conference, that’d be quite an accomplishment,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said.
“We have unity in disagreement,” added Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), who complained during the GOP lunch about not knowing the bill’s content, according to GOP sources.
“I’m not going to vote for a bill in the name of unity when I don’t know what’s in the damn thing,” Kennedy later said.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) emerged from the closed-door lunch with a blunt assessment: “It’s a mess. I can’t figure out what this bill is about. I don’t know what we’re trying to accomplish with it.”
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) spoke up about the lack of amendments and the legislative process, according to GOP sources. And Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who opposes a new coronavirus relief measure altogether, stormed out of the lunch meeting early and harangued his colleagues over the $1 trillion price tag, which is almost certain to rise during a negotiation with Democrats.
“It’s just very frustrating to me because it’s people who go home and say we’re fiscally conservative, [and] are now in a bidding contest with the Democrats to see how much money they can spend,” Paul said. He later called out in particular his fellow Republicans who are up for re-election this year, accusing them of pushing for new spending to aid their reelection bids.
“I think they have the misguided notion that you have to spend this or you can’t get elected,” Paul added.
McConnell (R-Ky.) addressed those intra-party divisions on Tuesday, saying he wasn’t surprised to hear the criticisms from members of his conference.
“I have members who are all over the lot on this,” McConnell acknowledged. “This is a complicated problem. We’ve done the best we can to develop a consensus among the broadest number of Republican senators — and that’s just the starting point, that’s just where we begin in dealing with the other side and with the administration.”
Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) encouraged members at the lunch to communicate with one another internally before speaking publicly, according to an attendee.
In addition to the group of fiscal conservatives that opposes another round of relief cash, new factions are emerging over other aspects of the GOP’s opening offer, including increased flexibility for state and local governments.
“I’m very concerned about the amount of money we’re talking about,” Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.). “What I don’t want to do is bail out the states. That’s wrong.”
President Donald Trump has even brushed off the significance of the disagreements within his party, telling reporters on Tuesday that the GOP plan is “sort of semi-irrelevant.”
Meadows didn’t directly address Trump’s comments about the GOP bill being “semi-irrelevant” when asked.
“Right now I think everybody recognizes there’s a long way between $1 trillion and $3 trillion and so to suggest there’s room for negotiation, it’s actually going to have to be built from the ground up,” he said.
Democrats, meanwhile, have dismissed the Republican plan as inadequate, as $600-a-week in expanded federal unemployment benefits and eviction protections are due to expire at the end of this week.
Republicans have “no concern about the fact that so many people, millions of children are food insecure, millions of people can’t pay the rent,” Pelosi told Democrats on a private call Tuesday, adding that the GOP bill was riddled with “condescension and disrespect.”
And there’s no sign lawmakers are anywhere close to a deal, even as Congress stares down multiple deadlines. Pelosi and Schumer questioned McConnell’s willingness to reach an agreement, saying the Kentucky Republican has indicated he wouldn’t compromise on his demands for liability protections for schools and businesses in the next bill.
“That is no way to negotiate particularly when his provision is so extreme,” Schumer told reporters Tuesday afternoon.
Several Republican senators were stunned in particular by the new FBI funds, which Democrats said were intended to boost profits for Trump’s hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, located across the street from the proposed FBI building. Though both parties agree that the FBI needs a new headquarters, several lawmakers had been pushing for the facility to be constructed in Virginia or Maryland. The White House on Monday said the building should remain near Justice Department headquarters downtown.
McConnell, for his part, said he opposes “non-germane” provisions in any final coronavirus relief package, effectively shutting down the effort.
“When we get to the end of the process, I would hope all of the non-Covid-related measures are out, no matter what bill they were in at the start,” McConnell said.
When asked about the FBI funding, Graham said he would support stripping it out of the final bill, adding: “That makes no sense to me.”
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said it “was kind of a strange addition,” while Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), a fiscal hawk, said he was “a little surprised by that.”
“I’m pretty skeptical about the way it seems to be shaping up,” Toomey said about the overall bill.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) confirmed that the White House pushed for the FBI funding.
Meadows, however, called the FBI money a “pressing need” as he went into the weekly Republican Senate lunch, contradicting McConnell. During the lunch, Meadows reassured members that he’d try to stay close to $1 trillion, according to Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.).
Cramer said Meadows hypothetically pointed to examples of priorities for Democrats and Republicans “that may be tradable, to remove some money to make room for other things.”
Democrats, meanwhile, are seizing on the GOP’s internal disputes and highlighting the FBI provision to suggest Republicans aren’t serious about the coronavirus negotiations.
“Senate Republicans managed to sneak in nearly $2 billion in taxpayer funds for a new FBI building whose location will increase the value of the Trump hotel and enrich the president and his family,” Schumer said. “Yup, in this proposal, Senate Republicans reward the president and his family’s business interests but not our essential workers.”
The House is supposed to depart later this week for a lengthy August recess but House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told Democrats they would be on call to return next week, with 24 hour notice, to vote on a potential coronavirus package. Privately, though, multiple Democratic aides said a deal next week currently seems hopeful at best, despite expiring deadlines for unemployment insurance and eviction moratoriums.
“A fig leaf from McConnell … reflects their policy of ‘you’re on your own,’” Hoyer added, dismissing the Senate proposal.
John Bresnahan contributed to this story.