Senate Republicans Are Stuck

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S1: So, Jim, the Senate hard at work or hardly working in a sort of limbo state between.

S2: Jim Newell covers Washington for Slate.

S3: I would say they’re working pretty hard to get to the starting point of when they begin to work in that they’re they’re supposed to be having this big bipartisan negotiation over another big Corona virus relief bill. But Republicans are having a little bit of trouble figuring out what they want.

S4: Jim’s written about dysfunction in Congress for years. But what’s happening now for him, it is another level because Republicans have had months to put forward their vision for what this relief package should look like. Instead, they’re still working on their vision board.

S3: You know, Chuck Schumer is daily floor speech was going and saying Republicans are in complete disarray. They have no idea what they’re doing. It’s a madhouse over there. They’re so divided. I flee.

S2: The country is crying out for relief. This was last week on the Senate floor. The needless delays, the partisan politics, the infighting between the president and Senate and House Republicans has got to stop.

S3: And I wasn’t sure I quite bought that on Monday when I was expecting Republicans just have their offer ready by Wednesday. But as each day went on and Mitch McConnell would at the end of the day, have to say, oh, this is going to need a couple more days, I think he was pretty much right. Like, I wasn’t sure was that bad for Republicans in the beginning. But it has proven to be.

S2: So how soon do like unemployment benefits expire for Americans who have been relying on them this week?

S3: I mean, the date’s a little confusing has to do with when the payments are actually paid out. But, you know, it could be that a lot of people have have had their last week already. But the authorization runs out this week.

S2: Today on the show, the clock is ticking in Washington. The question is whether that’s going to make the Corona virus relief package move any faster. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us.

S4: Mitch McConnell has said that Republicans will be ready to unveil their opening offer for this new corona virus stimulus package today. It’s sort of like part two of the Keres Act that passed in late March. That law allowed Americans to pick up those hefty unemployment benefits, the ones that run out this week. So the negotiations over part two, they are somewhat focused on extending those benefits. But Jim says the real sticking points are what else will wind up in the package.

S3: Each side has a compelling interest right now to do another piece of legislation. I mean, there are specific things that each side wants. A lot of state governments and local governments, because they need to balance their budgets. They have these huge budget gaps because they were losing sales tax revenue and they were spending their rainy day funds. And so Democrats, especially in some of the states where, you know, they have bigger state governments, California, New York, really need federal help to try and close that gap so they don’t have to just lay off tons and tons of workers. So that is sort of Democrats top thing they want here. Republicans and Mitch McConnell has been saying for months they really want liability protections for companies, hospitals, everyone, so that they don’t have to worry about reopening and, you know, being hit with, in their minds, phony lawsuits or anything that could really slow down business activity.

S1: Right. Or like my kid gets covered at school and then grandma gets really sick. And then I want to sue the school district or I want to sue the hospital, whatever.

S3: Yeah. And, you know, trial lawyers, plaintiffs lawyers are traditionally allies of Democrats and enemies of Republicans. And so I think Mitch McConnell says he he’s worried that they’ll be very opportunistic here. You know, it’s a bit of a caricature picture, but it’s it’s something that Republicans really want and really feel is necessary. So I think those are the real two big hooks here. There. I mean, there’s also the question of what you’re seeing right now when cases spiked again and some of the reopenings and state levels had to be either walked back or frozen, employment numbers are starting to get worse again. So it looks like the you know, the economy needs a lot of money to fix or keep people afloat. So that’s kind of why we’re here right now.

S1: We’ll take all of this stuff was foreseeable, though. Yes. Like, we were talking about this for weeks. So why is it that all the sudden we have this fierce urgency of now and we haven’t settled this?

S3: If you look at the the Senate Republican conference, there are a lot of people like Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, who, even though they are the in power party, they hold the White House. It’s an election year. Ideology is catching up with them a little bit. And they realize that the government’s already spent, you know what, five 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. And, you know, even though they were they’re passing the tax cut bill or something, they could just let that knowledge slip. I think it really is catching up to them. How much are spending? And so they’re uncomfortable with it. You know, the one thing Mitch McConnell hates more than anything is dividing his caucus.

S1: Is it dividing the caucus or is it just revealing divisions that have always been there?

S3: Well, I mean, same thing. I mean, you know, there are divisions on a whole number of things in Mitch McConnell’s answer as to not talk about it, if it’s going to get them fighting with each other against a unified Democratic caucus. But he does seem cornered now in a way that I haven’t seen him since health care reform in twenty seventeen when he had an obligation to do something, he couldn’t just bury it and not take up the issue. But, you know, he has one side of his caucus that is up for re-election in blue states and he has another side that, you know, are safe, don’t necessarily want to do anything. And he needs to find a way to bring about some rough consensus within that group when there might not be a rough consensus there. So he does seem like he’s he’s in a pretty difficult spot here. But he knows he can’t just not bring it up. You know, he can’t just only stick to confirming 32 year old judges or anything. He needs to do something on coronavirus relief. And, you know, it’s it’s just difficult for him to pull that together.

S4: And we should say, you know, back in May, the Democratic House of Representatives passed this Heroes Act. So they kind of teed up some legislation. It was big legislation. It was three trillion dollars. So theoretically, there’s something for the Senate to discuss. Are they even talking about that legislation?

S3: No. I mean, when Democrats passed that Republicans really dismiss it out of. And but it is you know, 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 even when you consider where Republicans and Democrats agree.

S2: They still don’t agree on how much all this should cost. So you’re wildly different funding caps on the total package, depending on which caucus is doing the talking.

S3: I mean, if you look at just total price tag, Republicans want to keep it around a trillion. The Democratic bill is three trillion and they might think we need more now because things have just gotten worse over the last couple of months. Huh? The White House is saying, oh, we’re gonna keep this one 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.

S4: They’re people like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul.

S1: I mean, you talked about Rand Paul like 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.

S3: Yeah, he really didn’t spare any words. I mean, he said it was like a meeting of the Progressive Caucus in the Republican lunch where they were discussing what to do. He said there should be a law preventing Republicans from saying they care about the debt. He really just trashed his party’s reputation, set a lot of things that Democrats have been saying about Republicans spending hypocrisy over the years. Rand Paul is sort of the right word 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 not either not up for re-election or not up for a close re-election this time. You know, Ted Cruz in that same Republican lunch said his colleagues, what the hell are we doing? We should be focused on revving up the economy, not, you know, tiding people over for any more time because we’re going to lose if we don’t get the economy revved up again.

S1: Yeah, it does. It does feel like we have the evidence now that when you just, you know, turn the key and rev up the economy, it doesn’t do great things for your corona virus numbers.

S5: Yeah, if you look at. Texas or Florida or Georgia states that really pushed to allow businesses to reopen sooner. I mean, you know, 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 expects, you know, everyone to go to a movie theater or the same thing with restaurants. You know, you’re still going to have some these businesses struggling to get anywhere near the revenue they had beforehand. So I think, you know, I think it’s dawn on some Republicans in Congress that so long as the virus is out there, there’s no such thing as just like. You know, saying forget about the virus and let’s have this choice where business can go back to 100 percent capacity. That’s not able to happen.

S1: Are Republicans like saying anything to Ted Cruz like that hasn’t worked?

S5: I don’t see people directly sniping back at Ted Cruz like in person. But I think you’re actually seeing it in some of, you know, Mitch McConnell. So you want but he was saying in his press conference this week, like, we really have to understand that this virus is not going anywhere until there’s a vaccine. So we’re just going to have to live with it and everyone’s going to have to wear masks and the economy will need a little bit more help. That’s not to say he wants to do it. Democrats or some experts were considered necessary to fill in the holes in the economy. But I do see their messaging sort of acknowledging the virus isn’t going anywhere. And you can’t just will the economy back to existence. And I think that’s probably reflected in their polling.

S1: And Ted Cruz is his seat is safe this year. Right.

S3: Yeah. He’s not up for re-election, but his colleague from Texas, John Cornyn, is up for election. And it’s, you know, potentially competitive. And I think you see John Cornyn much more open to doing another big package.

S1: So, OK, we’ve got Mitch McConnell on in one corner. We’ve got all these other senators who really want to keep the spending down and another and then into all this walks the White House and representing the White House. We’ve got Steve Manoogian. We’ve got Mark Meadows, who’s kind of a newbie wingman who’s just joined this negotiating committee as the chief of staff. What is the White House want here?

S3: They want a payroll tax holiday and. That is not something that there are many supporters of on Capitol Hill at all. Trump has sort of tweeted about or, you know, said he’s wanted at the beginning of a lot of different negotiations over the last year. It doesn’t go anywhere because there’s not much support on the Hill.

S1: I mean, we should explain a little bit what it is, which is it reduces the amount of money taken out of a worker’s paycheck for like Medicare and Social Security. Right.

S3: Yeah. So the payroll tax, it’s about fifteen percent. Half paid by employer. Half paid by employee. That money goes to fund Social Security and Medicare. So the idea is just you would zero that out and then, you know, workers would get a little bit more money in their paychecks. The problem with that for the moment is, one, there’s like tens of millions of people unemployed. So they’re not seeing any benefit for that. And then, yeah, then you do create a shortfall for Social Security and Medicare. So it’s not very well targeted. And, you know, the opposite way to look at that was something that in the Keres Act, which was to send the twelve hundred dollar checks, the economic impact payments out to everyone. And that makes sure it goes to both. Those who are working and those who aren’t. You know, it’s nice to have the big lump sum. Well, maybe not big, I know, depending on your circumstances. But the upfront lump sum payment of twelve hundred dollars rather than, you know, there’s these marginal increases of twenty or thirty dollars in your paycheck each week. It just looks better. Yeah, it looks better. But you know, Trump this time around in negotiations was really pushing for it. You could tell it made a lot of Republican senators uncomfortable because, you know, one they didn’t think was a great idea. Two, they thought it would crowd out a lot of other things they wanted to do in this bill under the one trillion dollar price cap.

S1: So it’s kind of just like taking up space in an already really crowded bill for a limited amount of money.

S3: Yeah. For and for an inefficient amount of money relative to what the problem is. It does appear that by now, after a couple more days of talks, they’ve gotten rid of the the payroll tax holiday like Manoogian and Meadow’s have agreed it won’t happen. President Trump tweeted, oh, is because the Democrats would never go for it. That’s why they take it out. And, you know, it’s true that Democrats didn’t like it. But also Republicans didn’t like it. So it was pretty bipartisan dislike of the idea.

S1: Is the White House advocating for anything, like 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?

S3: You know, there’s still some little pet projects that Trump wants that are just whatever. You know, he he wants the full restoration of the business meals and entertainment deduction, which was cut in the tax bill a couple of years ago.

S1: He wants that restored so you can write off your, like, business trips or your dinners out.

S3: Yeah. You know, when Trump in the 80s would take people to, you know, get surf and turf at some chintzy place in Manhattan. And he thought that was the glory days. He wants that restored. But it’s not really is something to see a White House that is so out of touch with what’s going on the Hill. And that’s irrelevant in a way to what it’s doing. I mean, in a normal administration, you would see a pretty well staffed legislative affairs department. They’ll 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. So you’re not sort of embarrassed like this. And also so you’re not throwing a wrench into what’s going on. And it seems like there’s just not much White House staff that’s tuned into the Hill. So they send Manoogian and Meadow’s who are you know, they’re not like longtime Hill people. I mean, Beddows was a congressman, but he was a far right congressman who was basically held veto power over what the House Republican majority did. He’s not someone who’s done a lot of bi cameral negotiations like this before. So it just seems really amateurish, the setup they have. They originally were trying to zero out funding for additional testing, tracing CDC funding, which is crazy. You know, it did seem like the White House was talked out of that. But there are some real gaps in political interest right now. I mean, you have Rand Paul is in a safe seat and you can go around being like I’m the only real principled member left. But then you have Republicans like Cory Gardner, Susan Collins, who are up for re-election this cycle, a lot more vulnerable, 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 what he wants to get is liability protections. But also he’s really trying to preserve a Senate majority, which is really not looking great right now. So he knows that he cannot hang his members on whom his majority hinges out to dry.

S1: So sounds like a mess. Mitch McConnell is now saying that it’s going to take three weeks to try to hammer something out. Is that right? Yep. You know, our own Jordan Weissman, he’s come up with this idea of, you know, Republicans should kind of swallow their pride here and just extend the unemployment benefits for three weeks while politicians hammer something out. Is there any chance of something like that happening?

S5: So Democrats were pretty skeptical of that. I think one reason is they just want to keep the heat on Republicans. They think it helps them get a better negotiation.

S1: Is there any thought going into the idea of making the benefits automatic? We’ve talked about this before on our show where instead of putting a deadline like a time deadline, these will run out in July. These will run out in December, say, OK, these benefits will run out when unemployment dips below nine percent or something like that. So there’s an automatic trigger. And instead of having these protracted negotiations and sort of what we’re going through now.

S3: Yeah. That’s Democrats negotiating position right now. It’s I think it’s not really you don’t sound optimistic that that’s not going to happen. I think legislators like having these choke points where they get to renegotiate the terms of the deal. And it’s you know, if Biden is president, you know, Republicans don’t want all this automatic stimulus money being done. They want to have their say in it. I mean, it’s a shame because it be more sane and and helpful to have things tied to, you know, whatever the economic factors are at any given moment. But I just think that’s probably too big of an ask right now.

S1: Looking at what have been over the last week in Washington, like, I have this massive concern that we’re spending so much time fighting over the basics here, like whether we should spend money on testing, which I think most people agree. Obviously we should whether we should fund the CDC, all these things, whether we should have a payroll tax cut, which turns out most people don’t think is a good idea. But we’re spending a lot of time on them and we’re not even getting to issues that are really important that we do see coming down the pike ahead of us, stuff like the fact that state and city governments are running out of money and a need some stimulus from the federal government. Like, we’re not even getting to that conversation because we’re wasting so much energy on the basics.

S5: Yeah, I mean, we will theoretically get there in a few weeks. So it’s a really inauspicious start when you spend three days considering the White House to not zero out money for testing, which is the single most important thing. You’re completely correct on that.

S2: Jim Nual, thank you so much for joining me. Thank you. Jim Newell is Slate’s senior politics writer. And that’s the show. What Next is produced by Daniel Hewitt, Jason de Leon and Mary Wilson. We’re getting some help from Daniel Eavis and we are led by Alicia Montgomery and Allison Benedikt. Thanks for listening. I’m Mary Harris. Talk to you tomorrow.