WASHINGTON – Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, in a closed-door lunch Tuesday, told fellow Republicans he urged the White House not to strike a deal with Democrats on a COVID-19 relief package, according to a Senate source who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss closed-door discussions.
The Kentucky Republican, who has blasted Democrats in negotiations, voiced concerns there would not be enough GOP votes to back a package and worries that voting on such legislation could negatively affect the timing on Judge Amy Coney Barrett's confirmation vote to the Supreme Court, the source said.
Republicans disagree about the size and details of an aid bill. Some Republicans rejected Democratic offers they said are too costly and will add to the federal deficit, though President Donald Trump has pushed for Republicans to offer even more than Democrats.
Republicans in the Senate are set to take up a $500 billion plan Wednesday that would reauthorize small business loans, reissue a federal boost to unemployment benefits, send more than $100 billion to schools and allocate funding for testing and vaccine development. The price tag of that bill is much lower than the roughly $1.8 trillion offered by the White House this month and the $2.2 trillion package Democrats put forward.
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the second-ranking Senate Republican, said Monday "it would be hard" to get enough Republicans to support a bill at $1.8 trillion. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said Tuesday, "I don't support something of that level."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin continue to negotiate a bill.
Pelosi and Mnuchin talked by phone Tuesday, and Pelosi spokesperson Drew Hammill said their conversation "provided more clarity and common ground as they move closer to an agreement."
They plan to speak more Wednesday.
Pelosi backed away from her own deadline, which called on the two sides to reach a deal by Tuesday if they wanted relief legislation by Election Day. Pelosi said in an interview with Bloomberg on Tuesday her ultimatum was not actually a deadline to have a deal but "the day where we would have our terms on the table, to be able to go to the next step."
The artificial deadline, Hammill said, spurred negotiations and showed "both sides are serious about finding a compromise."
The bill might not be passed until after the election, Pelosi said on Bloomberg. "We could still continue the negotiations," Pelosi said. "It might not be finished by Election Day."
Although the parties were close to resolving policy differences on COVID-19 testing provisions, Pelosi said there are two outstanding differences. One involves the amount of aid for state and local governments, which Republicans say would amount to bailouts for mismanaged governments if too much is allocated, and the other is over COVID-19 liability protections for businesses, a provision opposed by Democrats.
Pushing the negotiations until after the elections means both parties would not restart talks until the "lame duck" session of Congress, the time between the election and when a new Congress is sworn in next year.
Also Tuesday, the Republican-controlled Senate took a mostly symbolic vote on the reauthorization of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) for small businesses. The bill would reauthorize another round of small-business loans, though it is unlikely to become law. Democrats oppose standalone bills on the issue.
The PPP loans helped many small businesses stay afloat during the pandemic but expired Aug. 8. Under the program, businesses with 500 or fewer workers were eligible for loans up to $10 million, which became forgivable if at least 60% of the amount was spent on payroll.
McConnell dared Democrats to oppose the PPP bill, noting it is not a topic the two sides disagree on.
“I’ll let you in on a secret. There’s something senators do when we want something to pass: We vote for it,” he said on the Senate floor Tuesday. “It’s no counterargument to complain that the PPP legislation does not also contain 100 other things. The entire point is to agree where we can and make law while we keep arguing over the rest.”
He said Democrats were holding up additional relief for Americans over provisions that aren’t related to COVID-19. He said funds for the small-business loan program had “been taken hostage.”
“The Democratic leaders have spent months holding out for a long far-left wish list of non-COVID-related priorities and obstructing any additional aid until they get it,” he said. “All or nothing. That’s been their position. Either Democrats get every unrelated policy they want, or American families get nothing. So for months, they’ve blocked bipartisan aid at every turn.”
Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., blasted McConnell and said the PPP bill was nothing more than a “stunt” designed to fail in the chamber. He said that if McConnell were serious about getting help to American families and businesses, he would be at the negotiating table. McConnell has not played a role in the talks, leaving the negotiating to Democrats and the White House.
“The response here in Congress to a pandemic that affects our country in a way we haven't seen in decades should be to comprehensively provide relief,” Schumer said. “Our mission is not to pick out one or two industries and say maybe later to the rest. We can't privilege a small issue here or there and ask everyone else to wait. Our mission is to deliver big for a country and a people who are suffering direly.”
Both sides are struggling to reach a deal weeks before the election. They are hundreds of billions of dollars apart in their proposals and have been unable to resolve major policy differences on COVID-19 testing, liability protections and school funding.
Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act in March, but many of the package’s provisions have lapsed. The federal boost to unemployment benefits ran out in July, airline assistance expired in October, and Americans weathering an economic recession eagerly await another round of relief checks.
President Donald Trump ended relief talks at the beginning of the month, telling Senate Republicans to instead focus on the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett, but he reversed course, reopening negotiations with congressional Democrats.
McConnell said Tuesday a "presidentially supported bill" would come to the Senate floor if it passed the House.
Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, cast doubt on the possibility of a large aid package, calling the $1.8 trillion offered by the White House a "high number."
"The clock keeps ticking away, and I'm not optimistic about us doing anything," he said.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID-19 relief: McConnell urges White House against stimulus deal