The Senate Is Mad

Tempers flare as the chamber tries to close out a $2 trillion coronavirus deal.

Mitch McConnell gestures as he walks down a hallway.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is mad, walks toward the Senate chamber at the U.S. Capitol on Monday. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Early Sunday evening, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell scheduled a procedural vote for the roughly $2 trillion stimulus package that Senate Republicans and Democrats had been negotiating over the weekend. Democrats hadn’t signed off on the deal, though, and were still pushing for increased benefits for the unemployed, hospitals, and states, as well as stronger guardrails and oversight of the roughly $500 billion fund for large corporations, disbursement of much of which would otherwise be largely left to the treasury secretary’s discretion.

So Senate Democrats successfully filibustered. An unusually mad McConnell blamed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who flew back to D.C. from San Francisco on Saturday, for blowing up the negotiations by bringing with her a new wish list of demands. Later in the night, when McConnell tried to schedule a do-over on the same procedural vote for 9:45 Monday morning—15 minutes after the stock markets opened, in an effort to terrify Democrats—Democratic leader Chuck Schumer objected. The Senate opened at noon on Monday instead.

And when it came into session, it picked up where the previous night left off: with pure, unbridled anger from a cohort of cranky geriatrics who are trapped in the Capitol Hill coronavirus nest until they can reach a deal to prop up the country’s collapsing economy and health systems.

After McConnell’s opening remarks, in which he once again accused Pelosi of turning “the Senate’s serious bipartisan process … into this left-wing episode of Supermarket Sweep,” Schumer spoke about how his negotiations with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and the White House’s congressional liaison, Eric Ueland, had been going well.

“Our goal is to reach a deal today,” Schumer said. “And we are hopeful, even confident that we will meet that goal.”

When Schumer concluded, Maine Sen. Susan Collins tried to speak. Schumer, however, objected.

“This is unbelievable,” Collins said.

Schumer was just trying to set a voting schedule with McConnell. After they did, Collins spoke. She was mad.

“I will tell you, Mr. President,” she said, addressing the chair, “I’ve had the honor to serve in this body for many years. Never, never have I seen Republicans and Democrats fail to come together when confronted with a crisis. We did so after 9/11, we did so with the financial meltdown in 2008. Here we are facing an enemy that is invisible but equally devastating to the health of our people and the health of our economy. And yet, unbelievably, the Democratic leader objected to my even being able to speak this morning?”

West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, the conservative Democrat who’s friendly with Collins, tried to calm things down by explaining Democrats’ tactics.

“We’re in a situation now where if you vote ‘yes’ ” on the procedural vote, Manchin said, “and then you’re not in agreement with the bill, then it only takes 51 [votes]. That seems to be the reason that everyone’s saying, wait a minute, let’s get an agreement so we can move through.” In other words, Democrats would lose their leverage if they agreed to move forward.

McConnell was still in the chamber, and nothing gets Mitch McConnell more irate than someone being wrong in their application of Senate Rule XXII. Practically shouting at Manchin, McConnell observed that Democrats would still have another 60-vote point of leverage later in the process.

A Senate Democratic aide, when asked why Democrats don’t just start debate and use the next procedural vote as their leverage, said: “The negotiations are still happening, why should there be arbitrary deadlines for votes? If we get a deal things can be sped up.” Why try to amend the bill with the 30-hour clock for formal debate running, in other words, when they can still get it changed in the preliminary negotiations?

There was an hour devoted to floor debate before the next vote, and it was used for that rarest of purposes: debate. Typically a Senate “debate” involves lone floor speeches, with senators pretending for the cameras that they’re owning the other side into speechlessness when, in reality, few if any members of the other side are even in the chamber. It made for a weird scene, then, when senators actually got into arguments. After a mad Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown said that McConnell had taken days to call up the previous coronavirus response bill a week earlier, a mad Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton took objection to his timeline, noting that the House hadn’t transmitted the final version until the day before the Senate voted on it.

“I know you always want to do Trump, the president’s bidding,” Brown said. “I have the floor and will keep the floor.”

Other mad senators during this time period included Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, who is not often mad, and Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, who is frequently mad. Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, who is occasionally mad, was not mad, and urged other senators to not be mad as well. They didn’t listen.

When the Senate next voted, around 1:45 p.m., on the procedural vote to move ahead, it failed 49 to 46, with Alabama Sen. Doug Jones joining Republicans.

And so Mitch McConnell was, again, mad.

For more on the impact of the coronavirus, listen to Monday’s episode of What Next.