Politics

Republicans Scramble for a Strategy to Oppose the COVID Relief Bill

How do you say no to something most people want?

McConnell, wearing a mask, holds the handrails of an escalator down to the subway of the U.S. Capitol
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday. Al Drago/Getty Images

Congressional Republicans returned to Washington this week with a sense of alarm about a looming legislative predicament: Democrats’ $1.9 trillion relief package, which Republicans chose not to collaborate with, is, if anything, only gaining popularity as it hurtles toward the finish line.

The legislation—which would, among other things, extend unemployment benefits through the summer, offer generous aid to state and local governments, provide more money for vaccine distribution, increase the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, and send a round of $1,400 direct payments to most Americans—has consistently polled at wildly enthusiastic levels. A Politico/Morning Consult survey released Wednesday morning pinned support for the package at 76 percent, including 60 percent support among Republicans. A CBS/YouGov survey earlier this month showed 83 percent overall support. One of the worst polls for Democrats this month came from Quinnipiac University—and it still showed 68 percent support, including 37 percent of Republicans.

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With the House expected to pass the bill on Friday and the Senate to follow in the coming weeks, Republicans have their work cut out for them if they want to change the public’s mind. They’ve unsubtly kicked up their messaging efforts against the legislation this week with a series of op-eds, press conferences, deployments of nefarious buzzwords, and floor speeches inveighing against Democrats’ partisan offering. Internally, House and Senate Republican leaders are whipping to ensure that not a single Republican votes for the proposal.

They’re not having much trouble with that whip effort. In the House, swing votes like Reps. Tom Reed, Fred Upton, and Adam Kinzinger have all said they oppose the bill; in the Senate, Maine Sen. Susan Collins told reporters Tuesday that she “would be surprised if there was support in the Republican caucus if the bill comes out at 1.9 trillion, even if we’re able to make some beneficial changes” in the amendment process. The opposition isn’t a contortion of bad faith: Congressional Republicans do not believe that it’s worth spending anywhere near $1.9 trillion on COVID relief right now, just as they didn’t last fall. They maintain the spending itself is poorly targeted; the hundreds of billions of dollars in state and local aid and the $15 minimum wage are policies they oppose with wrath.

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But the American people, including Republican voters, may not be as passionately averse as Republican legislators are to words like bloated or poorly targeted, especially when there’s a $1,400 check coming in the mail. Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, for example, warns in a column for the Washington Post that “stimulus checks will go to a family making up to $200,000 a year, even if they haven’t borne the brunt of the pandemic.” Most families, in other words, will get a check. This is going to make them so … mad? About the bill?

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Former President Donald Trump had pushed for bigger checks, and Republican voters are far more passionate about former President Donald Trump than they are about the debt. The base, for example, would rather censure Fred Upton a fifth time for heretical acts against Trump and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene than listen to his concerns about targeting in relief funds. It was almost adorable to read Utah Sen. Mitt Romney take off the gloves and describe the relief plan as—cover your ears, kids—a “clunker” in his Wall Street Journal column, as if his reasonable points about how state and local coffers aren’t as depleted as once predicted will override Republican voters’ interest in performing a citizen’s arrest on Mitt Romney.

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The relief bill is a deficit-financed distribution of funds, which means it lacks the difficult trade-offs that opponents can wield so effectively against, say, health care legislation. The one area where Republicans believe there is a real trade-off, though, and thus where they’re harnessing the brunt of their messaging efforts, is on the provision that has some of the softest Democratic support in the Senate: the $15 minimum wage.

A $15 minimum wage polls well nationally. But there is some evidence that this support is malleable. A 2019 poll measuring support for Democrats’ $15 minimum wage bill—essentially the same one they’re looking to pass now—first found that 63 percent supported the idea. When questioners then noted, though, that “the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office found that a proposed policy would have the following impacts: Pay increases for 27 million workers, 1.3 million households lifted out of poverty, however, a median projection of 1.3 million job losses,” support fell to 37 percent.

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“Once we get the message out there about what it includes, how much it is, what the potential impacts are on the economy, minimum wage being a good example, then I think we’ll see more,” Senate Minority Whip John Thune told CNN about the bill’s popularity. “I think that’ll change.” They may not get the opportunity to test their theory out, though: The Senate parliamentarian is expected to decide imminently whether a minimum wage increase is allowed under the budget reconciliation process that Democrats are using to pass their bill.

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Otherwise, the GOP is nibbling where it can, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell concentrating on scary-hippie-sounding “liberal wish list items” like “environmental justice grants” in the bill, while others are harnessing their energies against the bill’s millions of dollars for museums and libraries. Every Republican under the sun is becoming quite friendly with Democratic economist Larry Summers, who’s warned about the relief spending “overheating” the economy and sparking inflation. But until the public is quite convinced that the Democratic bill, however mistargeted some of its allocations may be, actually takes something away from them, it’s going to be hard to override the substantial material benefits the bill offers. There’s already talk among Democrats about their next bill, concentrated on infrastructure, and whether they’ll need to offset some of its cost. Republicans might as well start looking ahead to that.

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