The Senate Returns to Its Essential Work

Having IRL lunch, confirming ultraconservative judges, and abandoning the recovery.

Three men in suits and face masks are walking
Mitch McConnell and the boys are back in town. To what end? Saul Loeb/Getty Images

Since he announced last week that the Senate would return to business, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s rhetoric has been Churchillian in its resolve to carry on the nation’s vital work in the face of a public menace.

“The Senate will shift out of the ranks of those Americans who are working remotely,” McConnell said in his opening remarks when the Senate returned on Monday, “and into the ranks of the Americans working in essential sectors who are listening to expert guidance and modifying their routines but ultimately continuing to man their posts to keep this country running.” The Senate will never surrender to the tedium of Zoom.

“If it is essential that brave health care workers, grocery store workers, truck drivers, and many other Americans continue to carefully show up for work,” McConnell continued, “then it is essential that their U.S. senators carefully show up ourselves and support them.”

Imbued with this powerful mission, Senate Republicans have returned to Capitol Hill with vigor: They are vigorously having catered lunch together each day, and then vigorously voting on a single administration nominee. They are vigorously moving the confirmation of a 37-year-old McConnell protégé to the second-most-powerful court in the country.* And then, on Thursday, they will vigorously fly home.

Go ahead. Allow yourself to feel comforted.

In terms of additional legislation that might “support” a shattered nation, however, the Senate Republican caucus is on a self-described “pause” right now that is set to expire on … well, no one can really say.

“We’ve appropriated nearly $3 trillion,” Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander said. “It’s not even all distributed yet—for example, the $175 billion for hospitals, the second $75 billion hasn’t been distributed yet. So we should distribute what we’ve yet to distribute. We should examine what we’ve already done before we take any additional steps. I don’t know what the timetable for that is.”

It certainly doesn’t seem to be this spring. “From a caucus point of view, there’s a general sense that what we did in March was appropriate for April and May,” Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt said. “It may not be appropriate for June and July. And this is a time, rather than just continuing to put more money behind the programs we think were the right programs to do for the two months we’re in right now, we need to have a careful view of what the economy needs to look like in June and July.”

The economy in June and July (and August and September and October and … ) will look like one with lingering double-digit unemployment. Businesses may have reopened, but it’s an open question as to how many “customers” they may have, especially as the virus won’t have been beaten into submission. The economy will still need the government to prop it up. The government, though, is starting to lose interest.

To the extent that there is any Senate legislation on the horizon, it’s legislative maintenance on the $2 trillion CARES Act. Indiana Sen. Mike Braun, for instance, was concerned about the tax treatment of small-business loans offered in the legislation. Elsewhere, though, he said he was “focused on reopening the economy” from now on and that the time for straightforward relief had passed.

Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, too, felt like enough money had already gone out the door.

“In macroeconomic terms, a number of economists are saying that we’ve probably lost maybe 30 percent to one-third of our economy. That’s about $600 billion a month,” he said. “Do the simple math on that. We’ve basically authorized total replacement costs on about five months worth of one-third of our economy.”

While Johnson said it was necessary to take a “carpet-bombing approach” at the time of the CARES Act, it “went to some people who didn’t even need it.” His primary objective, right now, is making sure that existing $3 trillion in funds is reprogrammed or redeployed to better match existing problems.

The appetite for new spending within the Senate Republican conference, in other words, is at about zero. They want nothing to do with another round of relief checks. An extension of the enhanced unemployment benefits included in the CARES Act will happen, in South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham’s words, “over our dead bodies.” There’s not much interest, either, in the package of tax expenditures that President Donald Trump has proposed, a caricature of Republican interests that includes a capital gains tax cut and a restoration of the business deduction for meals and entertainment.

“I don’t think there’s much more we can do here that’s going to really help businesses,” Braun said. “Going forward, any of the items that have been discussed, I’m not ruling them out. But I’m going to be the one that’s going to be careful because of the fiscal consideration that we’ve just spent nearly $3 trillion.” They might need to tinker again with rules governing the Paycheck Protection Program, which has tended to help more connected businesses rather than the mom and pop stores it was advertised to protect.* But there’s no consensus among Senate Republicans either about whether the fund should be replenished the next time it runs out.

Senate Republicans’ hostility to additional spending suggests that neither the National Governors Association’s request for another $500 billion in additional state and local aid nor Nancy Pelosi’s request for another $1 trillion in additional state and local aid is in the ballpark of “doable.” A small subset of Republican senators—some from particularly screwed states—including Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, and Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, has called for additional aid. But to the extent that there’s any broad Republican interest in doing more to help strapped state and local governments, it’s in offering them more “flexibility” in using the $150 billion pot included in the original CARES Act.

That is an important first step. That fund only allowed recipients to use money for direct coronavirus-related expenses. That did not include revenue replacement, and when a state’s sales tax receipts and other sources of state revenue have collapsed because there’s no economy to generate them, there’s a lot of revenue that will need to be replaced.

But Senate Republicans are split on how far that “flexibility” should extend, too. South Dakota Sen. Mike Rounds, for example, has offered a proposal that only allows for more flexibility on 25 percent of the already-allotted funds, to allow it to go toward things like emergency services, unemployment funds, Medicaid match funds, or education. Even by that stingy proposal, Rounds looks like something of a free-spending yahoo relative to his conference. The antipathy Senate Republicans feel toward blue-state budgets is real.

“I think there are a number of members in the Senate that feel strongly that we should not be, I think the term is, ‘bailing out’ states for prior fiscal problems,” Rounds said. That was the term of art that McConnell had first used, to much controversy, a couple of weeks ago. It wasn’t just him offering his take. It was McConnell, the manager of a 53-senator majority, expressing the will of his conference.

Republicans’ Wednesday lunch—which they still do, together, in person, while Senate Democrats have been holding caucus lunches over video conference—was dedicated to the state and local government issue and “whether or not” to allow additional flexibility in existing relief funds, let alone appropriate more funds, according to North Dakota Sen. Kevin Cramer.

“It was a pretty intense—I shouldn’t say that—it was a pretty broad, is a better word, discussion about, should we loosen it all up? 25 percent of it? Any of it?” Cramer said. “It does seem that we’re in a fairly small spot, leaving aside whether we should do any more.”

And what’s the timeline for this?

“Most Republicans,” Cramer said, “are somewhere between ‘Let’s wait and see what it looks like a month from now,’ and ‘never.’ ”

Correction, May 6, 2020: This piece originally misstated Justin Walker’s age as 38 instead of 37. It also misidentified the Paycheck Protection Program as the Payroll Protection Program.