Republicans and Democrats have been angrily bickering for weeks over a new economic stimulus package that has bitterly divided the two parties as millions wait for badly needed relief from Washington amid the worsening coronavirus crisis.
But there is a hardening bipartisan consensus about this: Any new measure will almost certainly have to wait at least until September to become law — and that’s being optimistic.
The two sides are trillions of dollars apart and sharply at odds over scores of details — while the Senate is now joining the House and closing shop until early next month unless a deal somehow emerges. Yet there’s one major problem: The two sides haven’t had negotiations for nearly a week, and no other talks are yet on the horizon.
Asked Thursday if he believed Congress could pass legislation before September, GOP Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas told CNN: “An actual law? I don’t know. Maybe that’s too much to ask.”
Indeed, Democratic and Republican aides and lawmakers are coming to the realization that the fight is likely to drag until September and could collide with an effort to keep the government open past October 1, a prospect that has unnerved many worried that Washington would continue to fail to provide economic relief while shutting down the government at the same time — just weeks before a hugely consequential national election.
And in another sign that talks are going nowhere, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell indicated on Thursday that his chamber would be on recess for the rest of August, joining the House, and that members would only return if there’s any deal that would require them to vote.
The grim prospects for swift action mean struggling Americans looking for a new round of direct checks to help with their rent and pay for groceries will have to wait indefinitely — as will hospitals and local governments ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic and schools hoping for federal dollars to help them safely reopen in the fall. Small businesses eager for another round of relief will have to wait. Also on hold — the billions needed to shore up the US Postal Service and aid to state governments looking for federal resources to safely carry out the November elections and provide for mail-in voting.
On a private conference call with GOP senators on Thursday, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows gave a dour assessment of the talks, expressing disappointment that there’s been no progress and contending that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would rather have no deal at all than agree to a price tag around $1 trillion-$1.5 trillion as the White House is open to, according to a source on the call.
A roughly $2 trillion price tag proposed by Pelosi lacks White House support, while Senate Republican leaders believe a bill with a $2 trillion price tag wouldn’t pass their chamber. And Meadows told GOP senators he believed they were making progress until Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer dug in on the price tag and pulled the plug on the talks, the source said.
Soon after Meadows gave his private take to GOP senators, Pelosi took to the cameras and had an opposite assessment: She railed against the GOP proposals as too meager, going point-by-point about how far apart the two sides were, and said Republicans refused to provide a deal needed at a time of a deepening crisis.
Asked at a press conference why not take a deal that amounted to “half a loaf,” Pelosi pushed back.
“This is not half a loaf. This is not even being in the same room,” Pelosi said to a reporter. “So I appreciate the goodness that you asked that question, but perhaps you mistook them for somebody who gave a damn. That isn’t the case.”
The current legislative outlook is bleak, far different than the four other relief packages already approved by Congress, totaling roughly $3 trillion. In May, Pelosi pushed through the House an additional $3.4 trillion package and demanded negotiations with GOP leaders, something McConnell resisted as he said Washington needed to first assess how the already-approved aid had been spent.
Then, Senate Republicans proposed late last month their own $1 trillion plan, even though some in their party balked at the price tag. The offer led to talks between Meadows, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Pelosi and Schumer, ultimately devolving into partisan sniping after the two sides came nowhere near agreement despite days of closed-door negotiations.
Pelosi called for the GOP to increase its offer by $1 trillion and said she’d go down by $1 trillion — allowing them to negotiate a deal around the $2 trillion range.
But the White House said her offer was nothing more than a fig leaf because she indicated no intention of paring back her priorities, since she instead suggested that the money would be spread out over a longer period of time, thus reducing the immediate impact on the deficit. Instead, Mnuchin called on her to ease up on her call for an additional $1 trillion in aid to state and local governments and for $600 in weekly jobless benefits — something she has rejected.
Leaving the floor Thursday after announcing the chamber would be out for August unless a deal was struck, McConnell said: “I’m still hoping we will have some kind of bipartisan agreement here sometime in the coming weeks.”
Asked if he was concerned about a government shutdown at the end of next month, McConnell told CNN: “No.”
Slipping to September
While leaders in both chambers say their members can come back within 24 hours to cast a vote, the reality on Capitol Hill means that the process to draft, review and consider any legislation will take much longer than that. The next two weeks will be dominated by party conventions, taking time and focus away from negotiating any deal. Pelosi, herself, will be in California for at least part of the week as the Democrats formally nominate Joe Biden as their party’s nominee. The following week, the GOP will be consumed with renominating President Donald Trump.
Yet even if they spoke by phone during that time period and agreed to the outlines of a deal, it would take many days for staff to draft the legislative language of such a vast proposal, a process that some believe could take up to a week or more given both its sweeping size and the fraught negotiations that would undoubtedly continue over the finer points of the bill.
And once the bill is drafted, it would go through the slog of the legislative process, and members would need some time to review it and be briefed on the details. In the House, the Rules Committee would have to meet and consider the bill and set the parameters for floor debate. In the Senate, McConnell would have to take the procedural steps necessary to take the bill up and cut off debate once it passed the House.
Under the speediest scenario, just the process of voting on the bill alone could take about a week.
But it could be slowed down, particularly in the Senate, if any senator were to object to speeding up consideration. And that would almost certainly happen — given the staunch opposition voiced by a number of Republicans over passing a package north of $1 trillion.
And all that means the soonest Congress would act almost certainly would be early to mid September — and only after the White House and Democrats reached a consensus.
Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Ron Johnson, a Republican from Wisconsin, has been sharply critical of the push to spend more money, arguing that federal dollars already appropriated need to be reallocated instead of Congress greenlighting new spending programs.
“It doesn’t sound like any progress has been made,” Johnson told CNN. “However, I am always amazed how quickly a bipartisan deal can be crafted to spend hundreds of billions, and in this case a couple of trillion dollars. Never discount the big spenders’ ability to do a big spending deal.”
Sen. Roy Blunt, a member of Senate GOP leadership who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, told reporters earlier this week that he’s “not willing to acknowledge that yet” about talks slipping until September and being tied to funding legislation to keep the government open.
But he quickly said, “I’m not in the room.”
Yet no one is in the room since talks haven’t taken place since last week.
And McConnell, who has not been in the room during any of the talks over the latest package, has taken to the Senate floor this week and attacked Democrats instead.
“The Democrats are barely even pretending to negotiate,” McConnell said Thursday. “The Speaker’s latest spin is that it is some heroic sacrifice to lower her demand from a made-up $3.5 trillion marker that was never going to become law, to an equally made-up $2.5 trillion marker. She calls this meeting in the middle. That’s not negotiating. That’s throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks.”
Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, speaking for the Democrats, said his party wanted to find compromise but then blasted the Republican proposals coming from the Senate and White House as insufficient, listing key needs unmet by the GOP plans.
“Food aid for hungry kids and families? Nothing. Rental assistance? Nothing. Mortgage assistance? Nothing. Aid to the states and localities where Americans live and work? Nothing. Funding to ensure the integrity of the upcoming elections? Nothing.”
Pelosi on Thursday reiterated her dire warning about talks extending until late next month.
“So we can’t wait until September 30; I know, some have said this,” Pelosi told reporters. “But people will die.”