For the past few pays, President Donald Trump has been exhorting Congress to “go big or go home” on the next stimulus bill, as he seems to have realized that sending another round of checks might be his only remaining hope for getting reelected. The phrase has become his mantra on Twitter and in interviews. On Thursday, he repeated it while telling Fox Business that he’d actually be willing to spend more than the $1.8 trillion his administration has already offered during its grinding negotiations with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “Absolutely, I would. I would pay more,” he said. “Go big or go home, I said it yesterday. Go big or go home.”
Unfortunately for the president—and, more importantly, the country—Mitch McConnell would apparently prefer to go home. The Senate majority leader has been planning to introduce a $500 billion “skinny” stimulus bill, and Thursday afternoon, he told reporters that he simply wouldn’t back a $1.8 trillion deal, much less something larger. “I don’t think so,” he said. “That’s where the administration is willing to go. My members think half a trillion dollars, highly targeted, is the best way to go.”
Senate Republicans have been building to this point for months, as they’ve rediscovered their inner deficit hawks and voiced concerns about the size of any relief package. The New York Times reports that on Saturday they angrily “revolted” over the issue in a meeting with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, who has been negotiating with Pelosi, and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows. Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn went so far as to claim that passing a bill hand in hand with House Democrats would be the “death knell” of the Senate GOP’s majority (it is unclear why, exactly, Blackburn believed this, but leave that aside). Bloomberg, meanwhile, reports that Republicans are already looking ahead, and “laying the groundwork to restrain a Biden administration on federal spending and the budget deficit by talking up concerns about the price tag for another round of virus relief.” In other words, the GOP is getting ready to kneecap the next administration by making a hard turn to austerity, and Trump’s personal desire to rain cash on voters before Election Day isn’t of much concern to them.
So what now? It’s always possible that something will change between now and Nov. 3. But for the time being, McConnell’s comments suggest that there is very little chance that Congress will pass a relief bill before the upcoming election. (Some think it’s possible that a smaller package could pass in early December, when the government’s funding is set to run out.) Hopes for a deal rested on the idea that Trump could browbeat GOP senators into passing whatever his team negotiated with Pelosi. It’s never been clear that the president could actually pull off that kind of a complicated legislative bank shot. But now that Republican leaders are explicitly distancing themselves from the commander in chief and his sinking trash barge of a campaign, it seems even more unrealistic.
Be that as it may, there are still good reasons for Pelosi and the Democrats to strike a deal with the White House while one is still on offer (in today’s talks, Mnuchin apparently promised that Trump would “weigh in” with McConnell to try and change his mind). First, the party still owes the country a good-faith effort to prevent widespread suffering this holiday season, especially since all signs point to a slowing economic recovery. Second, even if the agreement hits a wall in the Senate, it could still cause political trouble for Republicans. Rejecting a hypothetical $1.8 trillion package is different from rejecting an actual $1.8 trillion package upon which the president has bestowed his blessing. Why not force vulnerable GOP senators to explain why they’re defying Trump and refusing to vote for much-needed aid while Americans get ready for a winter of misery? Best-case scenario: McConnell buckles under pressure from the White House. Worst-case: Democrats score some points. If McConnell and the Senate GOP want to kill the bill, make them own their dirty work.