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Senate GOP seeks unity ahead of Thursday vote on ‘skinny’ coronavirus relief bill

GOP leaders "optimistic" about majority vote; intended to put pressure on Democrats, help incumbents

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., talks with reporters in the basement of the Capitol on Wednesday, September 9, 2020.
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., talks with reporters in the basement of the Capitol on Wednesday, September 9, 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Senators jockeyed for political position Wednesday as a GOP-drafted coronavirus aid package headed for what appeared to be defeat along mostly party lines in a vote set for Thursday.

The biggest outstanding question was whether Republicans would get enough support to pressure Democrats into cutting their relief demands, or whether Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s caucus is too fractured to stake out a firm negotiating position.

McConnell acknowledged during his remarks opening up the Senate session Wednesday that it would be little more than a show vote. “We’re not going to let Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi and [Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer] kill and bury coronavirus relief behind closed doors without putting every senator on the record,” he said. “It will be a procedural vote. It’s not a vote to pass our bill tomorrow precisely as written.”

While Thursday’s vote to end debate requires 60 votes, the focus Wednesday was on whether the bill would even have the moral suasion of a simple majority. “I’m optimistic that we’ll have a good vote on our side,” McConnell said after Wednesday’s Senate GOP policy lunch.

[‘Skinny’ coronavirus relief plan grows slightly; Senate to vote Thursday]

Senate Majority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., echoed McConnell’s optimism. He said a majority vote would demonstrate party unity and that “puts pressure on Democrats to come to the table and to make a deal.”

McConnell’s been trying to consolidate Senate GOP support around a smaller package after he publicly admitted that some 20 Republicans would vote against the earlier $1 trillion package he introduced in July. The 285-page version he introduced Tuesday has a much smaller net cost of roughly $300 billion over a decade, with about $650 billion in aid partially offset by repurposing funds originally set aside for business lending programs in prior relief laws.

More than half of the 53-member Senate Republican Conference had publicly expressed support for the bill by midday Wednesday, according to a CQ Roll Call count. Most of the remaining GOP senators appear likely to vote for the package, based on previous comments and positions.

Cruz backs new plan

There were early signs McConnell was picking up support. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who said in July that “I’m not only a no, I’m a hell no” on the prior GOP package, said Wednesday he’d support the “skinny” plan unveiled a day earlier.

In a statement, Cruz applauded the cost cuts in the measure and also inclusion of provisions he’s authored to fund alternatives for parents of kids stuck at home in online-only classes, such as private schools or home schooling.

Rick Scott, R-Fla., also said Tuesday he was encouraged by the slimmed-down price tag.

Josh Hawley, R-Mo., however, said he remains undecided on the plan because he wants to see more generous aid for working parents, including those who can’t afford to contribute to the 529 savings accounts or scholarship funds for private schools or home schooling that Cruz helped to secure.

Hawley wants to take part of the $10 billion in the underlying package that would provide tax credits to households that contribute to such scholarship programs and use it for refundable tax credits to defray existing home school expenses. Refundable credits are allowed regardless of income tax liability, which would benefit mainly lower-income parents.

Hawley acknowledged such credits are viewed as unjustified spending by some conservatives, but said he’s continuing to press the issue.

“For working families especially, this is a really big issue,” Hawley told reporters. “A lot of folks, they don’t have the wherewithal to contribute to scholarship funds. They’re coming out of pocket right now.”

It didn’t appear that there would be an opportunity for amendments, however, unless at minimum the measure advanced past the cloture stage on Thursday, which remains unlikely. Thune said he’s been talking to Hawley to try to help him “find his way to be for this.” But he added that Hawley’s home school tax credit proposal “came really late” in the process.

Rand Paul, R-Ky., is still a declared “no” vote since a $300 billion net cost, after offsets, is still too expensive; he wants that figure to be zero.

It was possible Republicans could pick up at least one Democratic vote to offset GOP defections. Doug Jones of Alabama said he was undecided, but allowed “there’s good and there’s bad” in the bill and that “my inclination is always to proceed with something rather than nothing.” Jones is considered the most vulnerable among Senate Democrats running in November.

There appeared to be little chance of broader Democratic support, however. Even Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., representing a state President Donald Trump won by 42 percentage points in 2016, said Tuesday he was opposed to McConnell’s bill.

In floor remarks Wednesday, Schumer excoriated McConnell for introducing “a new slimmed-down version of an already skinny Republican bill” and for a summer of inaction as the country faced “the greatest economic crisis we have had since the Depression.”

House Democrats passed a $3.4 trillion package in May, but have since offered to come down to $2.2 trillion. Top White House officials have said they might be willing to go as high as $1.5 trillion.

But there hasn’t been any further movement, and Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have already ruled out attaching relief funds to the must-pass stopgap spending bill needed before Oct. 1 to avert a partial government shutdown.

That increases the prospect lawmakers will head home to campaign in October empty-handed, which is one of the reasons McConnell is offering his caucus something to vote on this week.

[Pelosi, Mnuchin plan ‘clean’ CR, but length, other details unclear]

Less panic

While economists generally say the economy needs another injection of federal cash, there’s also less panic about the economy than there was when the unemployment rate skyrocketed to 14.7 percent in April.

Harvard economist Jason Furman, who served as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Barack Obama, tweeted last week that it was time to stop with the Great Depression comparisons.

Furman wrote that just a few months ago, few were predicting unemployment would come down to 8.4 percent as it was in August. “It is still a bad recession but not a historically unprecedented event or one we need to go back to the Great Depression for comparison,” he wrote.

Furman did note that more relief from Congress was necessary, however, including state and local government aid that is missing from GOP proposals, and $400 added weekly unemployment benefits, more than what Republicans have offered thus far. McConnell’s latest bill offers $300 in extra weekly unemployment insurance checks through Dec. 27.

Other features of the Senate GOP relief bill include:

  • A revamped Paycheck Protection Program taking back unspent Small Business Administration funds and offering “second draw” loans, capped at $2 million each, to firms with 300 or fewer workers that have seen revenue drop at least 35 percent year-over-year. The new program is estimated to cost nearly $258 billion, but the net cost drops to about $112 billion after rescinding unspent SBA funds.
  • $105 billion for K-12 schools and colleges and universities, along with the new scholarship programs intended to promote school choice. There’s also $15 billion to help working parents find accessible child care options.
  • $20 billion for farmers and ranchers who’ve been hurt by pandemic-induced losses, and $500 million for fishing and seafood industries.
  • $31 billion for development and distribution of vaccines, drugs and other medical supplies, and $16 billion for testing and contact tracing.
  • $10 billion worth of loan forgiveness for the U.S. Postal Service if the agency falls below certain cash thresholds.
  • Liability protections for businesses, schools and health care providers.
  • An expanded charitable deduction for 2020 contributions made by taxpayers who claim the standard deduction and aren’t eligible to claim charitable deductions.

Lindsey McPherson, Jennifer Shutt and Katherine Tully-McManus contributed to this report.

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