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Republicans look to virus relief to avert economic and electoral disaster

As aid programs expire, common sense says Congress must do something, but the politics have shifted since the CARES Act passed in March

ANALYSIS — This month, key virus relief programs that have kept millions out of poverty and propped up the U.S. economy expire. Yet, Republicans and Democrats remain miles apart on whether they should continue or, if not, what should replace them.

Common sense says Congress must do something. There are still 18 million Americans out of work. The Labor Department for 18 straight weeks has reported new jobless claims of at least 1 million. A Census survey this month found 12 million said they missed their July rent payment, with 23 million fearful they’ll miss August’s. The food stamp rolls have grown by 17 percent, or by 6 million people, since the coronavirus and state lockdowns crippled the economy in March.

But the politics have shifted since Congress passed the roughly $2 trillion CARES Act in March. The election is now almost three months away.

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The CARES Act provision offering an extra $600 in weekly unemployment benefits to the laid off, as well as to self-employed workers who’ve lost income, goes away at the end of the month. A federal eviction moratorium in the law ended on July 24.

The CARES Act passed quickly, with near unanimity. Don’t expect it to be so easy this time. Democrats sense political advantage. CQ Roll Call’s Capitol Insiders Survey of congressional aides this month found that nearly two-thirds of Democratic staffers thought the virus would benefit their side, politically, in November. Only 6 percent of the GOP respondents thought it would help theirs.

No surprise then that Democratic leaders are driving a tough bargain this time around, demanding that the Senate take up the nearly $3.5 trillion measure the House passed in May, which Democrats call the Heroes Act, to continue unemployment relief, mail another round of $1,200 checks to middle- and lower-income Americans, bolster virus testing and tracing, and bail out states hurt by shrunken sales tax revenue.

They’re also casting aspersions on the GOP proposal being assembled by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and aides to President Donald Trump. The “Republican bill will not come close, not even come close, to meeting the moment of this great crisis,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, arguing that the $1 trillion that Republicans propose to spend is nowhere near enough. A day later, the New York Democrat said his party was “united, House and Senate, behind the Heroes bill.”

Democrats also brazenly assailed McConnell’s “red line,” new liability protections for reopening businesses, schools and health care providers, arguing that they were not needed and would embolden businesses to take risks with people’s lives.

McConnell is trying “to capitalize on this moment of uncertainty in America to close down the responsibility of businesses to make certain they do everything reasonably possible to protect their customers and their employees,” said Senate Democratic Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois. McConnell’s insistence on liability protections, without clear rules for businesses to make their workplaces safe, risks “even more infection and death,” Durbin added.

House Democrats were on message too. “The Heroes Act should be the foundation” of the next House virus relief bill, Democratic Conference Chairman Hakeem Jeffries said, and he called Republicans “cruel-hearted and callous” for proposing to be less generous than the House bill would be to the unemployed. The House measure would extend the $600 addition to weekly unemployment benefits through January.

The politics of virus relief

Democrats don’t sound like a party willing to accept the GOP proposal. But are they willing to take nothing, then, if Republicans refuse to move their way, and if it means millions of constituents will suffer?

When Schumer slammed McConnell for how he’d put together his offer, in negotiations among Republican senators and Trump, he sounded much the same note he had in deriding the policing bill offered by South Carolina Republican Sen. Tim Scott last month. McConnell’s approach, Schumer said, was “the same partisan, one-side-only process that has failed time and time again.”

In June, Schumer instructed Democrats to oppose the vote to proceed on the Scott measure, even as McConnell promised an open amendment process. Democrats decided to save the issue for the election, despite the thousands of Americans in the streets demanding an overhaul of policing practices after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Democrats promised voters they’d do better with full control of government in 2021.

If Democrats do the same on virus relief, the American economy faces a rough six months, or more.

That’s predicated on Republicans taking the same approach they did on policing too. Rather than offer new concessions after Schumer and his colleagues rejected the Scott bill, McConnell shelved it.

But the politics of the policing debate were not as clear-cut as those of the virus. This time, McConnell and Trump know it’s likely that voters will blame Trump if the economic hole deepens, and that a Democratic takeover of the White House, and the Senate, may result.

Democratic aides surveyed by CQ Roll Call earlier this month said, by a margin of 51 percent to 36 percent, that they preferred to find areas of compromise with Republicans than stonewall them in the hopes of electoral advantage. But here, a failure on virus relief could spell the GOP’s electoral coup de grace. Killing the GOP offering would inflict hurt on all Americans, but for Democrats, an overwhelming victory in November is surely tempting.

The Republicans’ proposal, which McConnell plans to release soon, is not as generous as the House’s. It likely will extend weekly unemployment benefits but probably reduce the payments from $600. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said it will send another round of $1,200 checks to Americans but will allot only $500 per dependent. (The Democrats would pay taxpayers another $1,200 for each of their dependents.) 

The GOP’s expected aid to states would be limited to new flexibility on the use of funds appropriated in the CARES Act, and an additional $70 billion to help K-12 schools.

And Republicans plan to break their proposal into several bills in the hopes of overcoming Democratic opposition to elements of it. Speaker Nancy Pelosi rejected that strategy. “We cannot piecemeal this,” she said. 

Apparently missing from the GOP proposal, but included in the Democrats’, Schumer noted, is money for nutrition and rental assistance, as well as hazard pay for essential workers.

Fiscal tipping point?

At the same time, Republicans struggled to reach consensus among themselves, an indication that the party’s sometime aversion to deficit spending was working against a political need to revive the economy. 

House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy worried that “every great society has collapsed when they’ve overextended themselves,” and that “we are at that tipping point.”

Spending hawks like Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mike Lee of Utah and Ted Cruz of Texas wondered whether more deficit spending was needed.

For now, GOP leaders are giving no hint they’ll give ground to the Democrats. Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, the conference chairman, called the House bill “Pelosi’s trip to fantasy island.”

He said it was full of spending that had nothing to do with virus relief and bailouts for mismanaged states: “There is no way in the world that we are ever going to win a bidding war with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi when it comes to paying and spending taxpayer dollars. They are in a league of their own.”

Still, it was notable when McConnell said the GOP would offer $105 billion in education funding, including aid to colleges and private, K-12 schools, which is more generous than the Heroes Act. McConnell stressed the point that, at least in that one area, Republicans were willing to spend more (although Democrats offered additional billions in unstructured aid to states and localities). 

To avert economic and electoral disaster, Republicans may need to one-up the Democrats in more ways than that one, or at least meet them where they are.

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