Why Is It Taking So Long to Get Another Coronavirus Relief Package?

Mitch McConnell stands behind a microphone and in front of American flags while holding a face mask.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks to the media after his weekly policy luncheons on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Slate’s Jim Newell has covered the dysfunction in Washington for years. But what’s happening now? For him, it’s on another level. Republicans have had months to put forward their vision for what a new coronavirus relief package should look like. Instead, they are still working on their vision board. The clock is ticking in Washington, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said that Republicans will finally be ready to unveil their opening offer for a new coronavirus stimulus package Monday. I spoke to Newell about what’s taken so long and what the sticking points are. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Harris: How soon do unemployment benefits expire for Americans who have been relying on them?

Jim Newell: A lot of people have had their last week already.

Each side has a compelling interest right now to do another piece of legislation. And there are specific things that each side wants. A lot of state governments and local governments, because they need to balance their budgets, have these huge budget gaps because they were losing sales tax revenue and spending their rainy day funds. And so Democrats, especially in some of the states where they have bigger state governments—like California and New York—really need federal help to try to close that gap. That is the Democrats’ top thing they want here. Mitch McConnell has been saying for months that Republicans really want liability protections for companies, hospitals, everyone, so that they don’t have to worry about reopening and being hit with what in their minds are phony lawsuits that could really slow down business activity.

There’s also the question of what you’re seeing right now, when cases spiked again and some of the reopenings at state levels had to be walked back or frozen. Employment numbers are starting to get worse again. So it looks like the economy needs a lot of money to keep people afloat.

All of this stuff was foreseeable, though. We were talking about this for weeks. So why is it that all of a sudden we have this fierce urgency and we haven’t settled this?

If you look at the Senate Republican Conference, there are a lot of people—like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz—for whom, even though they are the party in power, ideology is catching up with them a little bit. And they realize that the government’s already spent $5 trillion or so this year. There’s going to be a multitrillion-dollar budget gap. I think it is becoming a lot for them to stomach.

Because they’ve built their careers on being deficit hawks?

Right. I think it really is catching up to them how much they’re spending. And they’re uncomfortable with it. The one thing Mitch McConnell hates more than anything is dividing his caucus.

Is it dividing the caucus, or is it just revealing divisions that have always been there?

Well, same thing. There are divisions on a whole number of things, and Mitch McConnell’s answer is to not talk about it. But he does seem cornered now. He has one side of his caucus that is up for reelection in blue states and he has another side that is safe and doesn’t necessarily want to do anything, and he needs to find a way to bring about some rough consensus within that group. He’s in a pretty difficult spot here, but he knows he can’t just not bring it up.

Back in May, the Democratic House of Representatives passed this HEROES Act. They kind of teed up some legislation. It was big legislation. It was $3 trillion. So theoretically, theres something for the Senate to discuss. Are they even talking about that legislation?

No. When Democrats passed that, Republicans really dismissed it out of hand. But Democrats have a pretty good point, like, We were ready for this months ago. Now we come up against the deadline and you all realize you have to do something. And you can’t get there.

If you look at just the total price tag? Republicans want to keep it around a trillion. The Democratic bill was $3 trillion, and Democrats might think we need more now because things have just gotten worse over the last couple of months.

The White House is saying, Oh, we’re gonna keep this to $1 trillion no matter what. Well, that’s not gonna happen. I think people will admit that it’s going to keep going up once Republicans start negotiating with Democrats.

And the Republican senators who really want to keep a lid on the spending, they’re people like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul. You talked about Paul storming out of a lunch this past week because he just couldn’t stomach, theoretically, the amount of money that Republicans were talking about spending.

Yeah, he really didn’t spare any words. He said it was like a meeting of the Progressive Caucus. He said there should be a law preventing Republicans from saying they care about the debt. He really just trashed his party’s reputation, said a lot of things that Democrats have been saying about Republicans’ spending hypocrisy over the years. Rand Paul is sort of the rightward edge there. It’s not a surprise that he feels that way. Maybe some of the words he used are a little harsh, but I think he speaks for a lot of other members, especially ones who are either not up for reelection or not up for a close reelection this time.

Ted Cruz, in that same Republican lunch, said to his colleagues, What the hell are we doing? We should be focused on revving up the economy, not tiding people over for any more time because we’re going to lose if we don’t get the economy revved up again.

It does feel like we have the evidence now that when you just turn the key and rev up the economy, it doesnt do great things for your coronavirus numbers.

Yeah, if you look at Texas or Florida or Georgia, states that really pushed to allow businesses to reopen sooner, it didn’t last very long because then their cases would pick up again and they’d have to freeze everything or shut things down again. And also, you can’t just snap your fingers and say, oh, movie theaters are reopened and then expect everyone to go to a movie theater. I think it’s dawned on some Republicans in Congress that so long as the virus is out there, there’s no such thing as saying forget about the virus.

So, OK, weve got Mitch McConnell in one corner. Weve got all these other senators who really want to keep the spending down in another. And then into all this walks the White House, and representing the White House weve got Steve Mnuchin and Mark Meadows, whos kind of a newbie wingman whos just joined this negotiating committee as the chief of staff. What does the White House want here?

It wants a payroll tax holiday, and that is not something that there are many supporters of on Capitol Hill at all. Trump has tweeted about or said he’s wanted this at the beginning of a lot of different negotiations over the past year. It doesn’t go anywhere because there’s not much support on the Hill.

Is the White House advocating for anything else on its own now, or is it mostly just focused on keeping the peace first among the Republicans and then between the Republicans and Democrats?

There are still some little pet projects that Trump wants. He wants the full restoration of the business meals and entertainment deduction, which was cut in the tax bill a couple of years ago. It’s so you can write off, like, business trips or dinners out. You know, when Trump in the ’80s would take people to surf ’n’ turf at some chintzy place in Manhattan and he thought that was the glory days. He wants that restored.

It really is something to see a White House that is so out of touch with what’s going on on the Hill, and thus irrelevant in a way. In a normal administration, you would see a pretty well-staffed legislative affairs department that would be aware of what’s possible on the Hill and what the Hill’s thinking and negotiate what it asks for relative to what’s possible—you know, so you’re not embarrassed like this and not throwing a wrench into what’s going on. And it seems like there’s just not much White House staff that’s tuned in to the Hill. So they send Mnuchin and Meadows, who are not longtime Hill people. Meadows was a congressman, but he was a far-right congressman who basically held veto power over what the House Republican majority did. He’s not someone who’s done a lot of bicameral negotiations like this before. It just seems really amateurish, the setup they have. They originally were trying to zero out funding for additional testing and tracing from CDC funding, which is crazy. It did seem like the White House was talked out of that.

But there are some real gaps in political interest right now. You have Rand Paul, who is in a safe seat and can go around being like Im the only real principled member left. But then you have Republicans like Cory Gardner and Susan Collins, who are up for reelection this cycle and are a lot more vulnerable, and cannot go home for August recess without having gotten a deal. If you’re looking at what’s tipping the scales for McConnell, it’s that he wants to get his liability protections, but also he’s really trying to preserve a Senate majority, which is not looking great right now. So he knows that he cannot hang his members out to dry.

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