WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that he's scheduling a procedural vote on a GOP COVID-19 relief bill next week, pushing aid to hard-hit businesses in a smaller-bore approach to virus relief that Democrats say they won't go for.
The Kentucky Republican says the first item of Senate business when the chamber returns next Monday will be a procedural vote on a scaled-back aid bill. Democrats filibustered a GOP-drafted aid bill last month and recent talks on a larger deal between Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., fell apart this past weekend, probably for good.
“Democrats have spent months blocking policies they do not even oppose. They say anything short of their multi-trillion-dollar wish list, jammed with non-COVID-related demands, is ‘piecemeal' and not worth doing," McConnell said in a statement. “And she has worked hard to ensure that nothing is what American families get."
McConnell's move appears unlikely to work. The COVID relief debate appears to have gone back to a phase in which the participants have largely given up and are devoting time and effort to political positioning ahead of the election rather than negotiations and compromise.
For her part, Pelosi defended her demands for more than $2 trillion in COVID relief on a teleconference with other Democrats and a combative performance with CNN's Wolf Blitzer, who pressed her about shrugging off a recent $1.8 trillion White House offer. Pelosi said a handful of Democratic critics “have no idea about the particulars” of her negotiations with the administration.
President Donald Trump continues to agitate for “stimulus," saying that Capitol Hill Republicans should “go big" rather than the limited approach they've been advocating.
Opinion polls show that additional coronavirus relief is a higher priority for most voters than quickly approving Trump's nomination of Appeals Court Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. While many Republicans take a skeptical view of the need for more virus relief like special unemployment benefits or direct payments to most taxpayers, some GOP senators in difficult re-election races are eager for more aid.
The economy rebounded in better than expected fashion after the huge fiscal stimulus of the $2 trillion CARES Act in March. But help for small businesses is largely on hold and supplemental jobless benefits have run out, while airlines and restaurants are desperate for aid. Pelosi is adamant about tax credits for the working poor, along with help for renters and homeowners, but Republicans are set against it.
Under Senate rules, McConnell can call for a revote on the September legislation, which was filibustered by Democrats as insufficient. It also doesn't satisfy Trump, in part because it did not provide for another round of $1,200 direct payments that would go out under his name.
McConnell could also modify the earlier GOP bill.
Earlier Tuesday, Pelosi issued a statement again criticizing Trump for caring chiefly about the direct payments.
“A fly on the wall or wherever else it might land in the Oval Office tells me that the President only wants his name on a check to go out before Election Day and for the market to go up," Pelosi said in a letter to her colleagues.
She defended her hardline position on a Tuesday conference call with fellow Democrats, claiming Democrats have more leverage than ever. But the risk of emerging empty-handed until next year appears very real.
Talks on the latest potential round of COVID relief began in July, collapsed in August, and were revived last month. Last week alone saw Trump cause the talks to collapse on Tuesday, only to revive them heading into the weekend. They then cratered again on Saturday after Trump's latest $1.8 trillion proposal took heavy fire from both Democrats and Trump's GOP allies.
Republicans are back to offering smaller, targeted aid that would permit endangered party members to again go on record in favor of aid, even if it's a nonstarter with Democrats and opposed by Trump.
“What I hear from Sen. McConnell is once again take a little piece and be satisfied. What I hear from the president just the opposite," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. “Can the two of them sit down and agree? Wouldn’t that be a breakthrough?”
Some Democrats are convinced that Joe Biden is poised to reclaim the White House and have been pressuring Pelosi to strike a less ambitious deal that would deliver aid now rather than letting the economy to continue to struggle without help until next year. Pelosi's response was to gather statements from a host of committee chairmen criticizing the administration's latest offer.
“If Congress doesn’t act, the next president will inherit a real mess," said Harvard economist Jason Furman, a former top adviser to President Barack Obama. “If the Mnuchin offer could be passed by the Senate — which is a huge “if" — that would be a lot better than waiting to get even more in January."
“Nobody's waiting until February," Pelosi said on CNN.