With Go-Slow Approach, Republicans Risk Political Blowback on Pandemic Aid

(NYT) - With jobless numbers rising, Republicans’ refusal to negotiate on another round of pandemic relief is proving difficult to sustain.

With Go-Slow Approach, Republicans Risk Political Blowback on Pandemic Aid

WASHINGTON — More than eight weeks and almost $2.8 trillion federal dollars into an urgent response to the coronavirus pandemic, congressional Republicans and the Trump administration have made it clear that they have little interest in engaging with Democrats on another round of costly relief measures.

But their resistance — born of spending fatigue and policy divisions — is proving increasingly unsustainable, given tens of millions of anxious Americans out of work, businesses and schools shuttered and an election looming.

Democrats are already pounding Senate Republicans — particularly endangered incumbents facing the voters in November — for their hesitancy in moving forward with additional relief, energized by a hallway comment by Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, that he felt no “urgency” to provide more immediate help.

With the nation in severe distress, Democrats saw that remark as a serious blunder by the usually disciplined Mr. McConnell, and are not letting it go.

“I’d urge the constituents of senators in every state to call them and ask them that question: Do you agree with Senator McConnell?” Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, said Thursday on the Senate floor.

Members of both parties concede that the $3 trillion measure drafted by House Democrats is several bridges too far, considering its giant cost and the underpinning of progressive policies on immigration and other issues that could never clear the Republican-controlled Senate. Republicans branded it an outlandish liberal wish list. Most have rejected it outright, and very few are expected to back it in the vote set for Friday — conveniently scheduled by Democrats to coincide with more gloomy unemployment news.

But this week demonstrated the difficulty of maintaining that stance. Jobless claims soared to 36.5 million over two months, and Jerome H. Powell, the chair of the Federal Reserve, warned on Wednesday that Congress must be prepared to enact more fiscal stimulus to avoid long-term economic damage.

Representative Peter T. King of New York, a Republican who has said he will support Democrats’ $3 trillion aid bill despite his opposition to many of its provisions, said the dire economic situation of so many states and cities means Congress has to start somewhere.

“States are going to go under,” Mr. King said. “You’ve got to get negotiations going. You can’t stand in each other’s corners yelling back and forth.”

Yet that seems to be exactly what is happening, as the pandemic continues to exact its toll. Almost since the last rescue package was approved in late April, Mr. McConnell has been insistent that it was time for Congress to “pause” and evaluate how the trillions in spending already pushed out the door were working before allocating more.

He and many of his Republican colleagues have been particularly resistant to bailing out what they portrayed as spendthrift Democratic-led states looking to the federal government to cover their overly generous union pension obligations.

Mr. McConnell was not happy with how the previous negotiations unfolded, with Democrats successfully holding out for concessions and the White House, represented by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, readily acquiescing. He made it clear he would not go down that road again.

He began the week sticking to that position, telling reporters on Tuesday that he would not so much as “interact” with Democrats until Senate Republicans and the White House had reached a joint decision on whether to move ahead, and what should be included in any package.

But by Thursday, he was opening the door slightly to another round of legislation, even as he left the timing uncertain.

“We do anticipate having to act again at some point,” he said in an interview with Fox News, saying that he agreed with Mr. Powell. “I am certainly not ruling out another fiscal package.”

Ms. Pelosi is not waiting, pushing forward her House bill put together solely by Democrats, while noting the call by the Federal Reserve chair for aggressive intervention by Congress to shore up the economy. In the absence of a Republican negotiating partner, she said, “our conversation is with the American people.”

“I’m optimistic that the American people will weigh in and make their views known,” she said.

Earlier Thursday, Mr. McConnell shredded the House legislation on the Senate floor as an “1,800-page seasonal catalog of left-wing oddities” and a “totally unserious effort.” He also said that Democrats “cannot stop salivating over the possibilities for partisan gain.”

Whether they are salivating or not, it is true that Democrats see the opportunity to score political points if Republicans stick to their standpat stance on pandemic relief. Democrats are trying to position themselves as the alternatives to go-slow Republicans, portraying theirs as the party racing to the rescue of suffering and cash-short Americans, as evidenced by the support former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. gave this week for rent and mortgage forgiveness for those struggling to pay.

At the same time, Democratic state parties in Arizona, Georgia and North Carolina, among others, are hammering Republican incumbents, pressing them on whether they side with Mr. McConnell or unemployed constituents being thrown off their health insurance. One broadside aimed at Senator Thom Tillis in North Carolina was typical.

“Does Tillis Agree With McConnell That There’s No ‘Urgency’ to Act as New Reports Show Millions Without Health Insurance and a Looming ‘Long, Painful’ Downturn?” asked a statement distributed by the North Carolina Democratic Party.

Republicans say they believe they can counter the Democratic drumbeat by focusing on how over-the-top the House proposal is, with its plethora of liberal policies — and by emphasizing that the party’s most progressive wing still was not satisfied.

Republicans are also putting forward rescue packages of their own, though they have not yet been embraced by either the party leadership or the White House. It was notable that Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado, perhaps his party’s most endangered incumbent, on Thursday got behind a proposal by Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, that would have the federal government underwrite minimum payroll for workers and provide new grants to struggling businesses.

“We must think big as we continue to search for solutions to help the American people through this pandemic,” Mr. Gardner said in a statement. His position seemed to clash with Mr. McConnell’s pledge this week that if there were a future bill, “we’re going to insist on doing narrowly targeted legislation.”

Some Republicans say the absence of a negotiation is in itself a negotiating tactic as the two sides maneuver for position. Many see more legislation as inevitable given the immense needs and the intensifying political pressure and say the foundation for an agreement exists, with business aid, payroll guarantees, help for state and local governments and some form of liability protections as building blocks.

“There is a deal to be had here,” said Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a senior Republican on the Appropriations Committee and a veteran legislative negotiator. “It is just not going to be this deal, and it is not going to be rushed as quickly as the Democrats would like to do it.”

In the meantime, the parties remain in their corners shouting, but Democrats believe the clamor will ultimately cause Republicans to relent.