Politics

Will Mitch McConnell Finally Bend on Coronavirus Relief?

The compromisers and moderates may have finally reached a deal.

Mitch McConnell pointing his finger.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at the U.S. Capitol on Dec. 1. Pool/Getty Images

Jordan Weissmann: Here we are again, Jim. Coronavirus cases are at record highs. States are shutting businesses back down. We’re hurtling toward Dec. 26, when millions of Americans are scheduled to lose their federal unemployment benefits, right after Christmas. Pretty much everybody in Washington agrees that we need some kind of relief bill to tide the country over until we finally start distributing vaccines. But despite the existence of a promising bipartisan proposal, the latest round of negotiations could still fall apart, because lawmakers are once again deadlocked over two issues that have divided them since this summer: aid to states, which Republicans don’t want, and legal liability protections for businesses and other organizations, which Democrats oppose. So, are we just living through Groundhog Day again, or is there a chance Congress finally breaks this cycle and reaches a deal/wins Andie MacDowell’s love?

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Jim Newell: I will boldly go on the record, Jordan, and say there is between a 1 and 99 percent chance Congress reaches a deal. The biggest breakthrough, a week or so ago, was when the yawning chasm between negotiators’ top-line numbers closed to a modest gap. Democratic leaders stepped off their hard line of a multitrillion-dollar package and accepted a $908 billion framework put forward by a group of Senate moderates like Joe Manchin and Susan Collins, as well as a bloc of House moderates in the Problem Solvers Caucus, who are eerily close to netting their first-ever solution to a problem. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is still pushing for his $500 billion plan, but the numbers are close enough. The problem, as you said, is the same central policy issue that’s gotten in the way of a deal for six months: A liability shield is a nonstarter for many Democrats, and additional aid for state and local governments is a nonstarter for many Republicans. Either they finally reach the elusive compromise on that, or drop both and pass the rest. Or they pop off and do nothing. What’s your bet?

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Jordan: I am cautiously optimistic Congress might actually complete this Rubik’s Cube. Everyone agrees that doing nothing would, in fact, be quite bad. And with the Georgia runoffs coming, and polls suggesting the race is either a tossup, or that the Democrats are slightly leading, Mitch McConnell’s majority could in fact hinge on passing some sort of deal.

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What are the final moves here? Well, that’s not totally clear. Texas Sen. John Cornyn—who authored the liability shield proposal—said that he suggested dropping it and state aid from the legislation, and that it “went over like a lead balloon.“ But then on Tuesday, Mitch McConnell suggested doing exactly that. If I were a Democratic lawmaker, I’d personally be very, very hesitant to take a package without help for state and local governments, since transit systems are about the collapse into rubble. But at the same time, it’s really hard to figure out what the middle ground on a liability shield would be that allows Democrats to swallow one.

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Jim: It seems like the compromise could be a six-month federal liability shield … but then they get stuck on how they would resolve their core philosophical differences after those six months.

There’s another element of mystery, too. Right now, the framework does not include another round of direct payments of up to $1,200 to most Americans. This is forming a horseshoe of dissent between the furthest right and left flanks, with, for example, Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley working alongside Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to try to get that added. Giving people checks is popular—indeed, it probably made the presidential election closer than it would otherwise have been—but it would also cost another $300 billion, which would push the price tag above $1 trillion, the arbitrary number that terrifies Senate Republicans. Jordan, is this the fight that progressives should be fighting, or should they be prioritizing improvements on other elements of the package?

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Jordan: Funny you should ask, Jim! I just happened to write a whole piece about how Democrats should be willing to drop the demand for checks for now (but keep promising to send another round if they win the Senate, because checks are popular).

The anti-check argument is basically that the economy is in much better shape than anybody expected at this point, and if we can keep everything from backsliding during the winter, we might actually be poised for a summer boom once vaccines are distributed. That means Congress needs to keep people from getting newly fired, by providing aid to small business and state governments—many of which are staring at financial Armageddon—while supporting people who are still out of work by extending unemployment benefits. Checks would be good, too, sure—in fact, they’d be excellent, because they’d help struggling Americans who’d otherwise fall through the cracks of a rescue effort, like some Gorilla Glue filling gaps in the package. The problem with checks is that it would spend a lot of money on people who are basically fine financially (because they’re still working), which isn’t a great use of limited funds particularly if it means spending less on other, more pressing priorities. I get why left-wing Democrats like AOC are pushing for them anyway. My question is whether Hawley is sincere about this, or if he’s just trying to tank the whole thing while trying to polish his populist credentials.

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Fitting checks into a deal is going to require one side to really give ground. Either you have to expand the overall size of the package, which Republicans don’t want to do, or you have to cut something else that might be a higher priority for Democrats.

That all said, Politico reports that McConnell is possibly “warming” to the idea. And if he offered Democrats a deal that dropped both state and local aid and legal liability and included checks (which, again, are very popular), it could be really hard for Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi to say no.

Which actually brings me to a question: I’m sort of assuming that Cocaine Mitch wants a deal at this point. Do you think that’s the case?

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Jim: I think, overall, yes. He has the leverage over Democrats now since they failed to meet expectations on Election Day and can’t just blow him off and write their own, partisan $3 trillion bill in January. (As evidence: Democrats dropping their ask by $1.5 trillion in one fell swoop.) Adjourning for the holidays and going over the cliff, on the eve of runoff elections to determine control of the Senate, wouldn’t be a good look at all. He also probably recognizes that there does need to be another relief package, and he’d rather do it now with a Republican president and (certain) Senate Republican majority. Then next year, when Biden and Democrats are calling for more, he’ll have more cover for not lifting a finger to help them.

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But also, don’t discount the possibility that he’s willing to let it all collapse and blame all the wreckage on Democrats for the next two years.

What do you think?

Jordan: There has to be a little part of McConnell that thinks that if he just lets everything burn, Democrats are going to get destroyed in the 2022 midterms (especially right after redistricting), no matter who actually deserves the blame. I don’t know if that’s actually true—a lot would depend on whether Democrats’ were deft enough to pin responsibility on McConnell’s obstruction, which might be easier if nothing passed the Senate. But I just can’t imagine the thought hasn’t passed through his mind.

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Jim: Oh, I’m sure it’s more than passed through his mind, and he is doing minute-by-minute calculations to determine the higher percentage political play.

But I do think, if a deal died now, the politics of blanket-refusing Biden’s requests for relief would be more difficult for McConnell.

Jordan: It’s funny. We haven’t even mentioned the words Donald Trump.

Jim: That guy!

Jordan: Apparently, Hawley convinced him that there should be checks in the deal! Does it even remotely matter?

Jim: That may just mean “Josh Hawley was the last person to talk to him on the subject.” The Washington Post did report on Tuesday afternoon that the White House had asked Senate Republican leaders to include $600 checks. But the White House position could, and will, change by the hour.

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Trump’s involvement could matter if he really leans into the policies he wants and consistently applies pressure to his own side on it, something he has never done except when it comes to preserving Confederate names for military bases and bankrupting Twitter for fact-checking him. But he’s more preoccupied, now, with ruining state-level Republicans’ political careers for not executing a coup on his behalf. I think what matters most on policy inclusions is where 218 and 60 votes are in Congress.

Jordan: That’s more or less my sense. There was this funny moment, after Manchin, Romney, Collins & co. unveiled their compromise framework, where McConnell got really surly, and said he was going to circulate his own $500 billion deal that he’d precleared with the White House because there was no point in “wasting time” on legislation that Trump wouldn’t sign. It was self-evidently BS already, but the way Trump just jumped on board with Hawley’s demand for checks really underlines how absurd it was to suggest that the president has any sort of coherent political philosophy here.

Jim: I could see Trump issuing a last-minute veto threat, after the deal was reached, because it didn’t include language naming him as the winner of presidential election or because it didn’t send Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp to Guantánamo Bay. But, yeah, his decision to sign or not would never be based on actual considerations from this dimension, like “how much it costs.”

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