Washington (CNN)Senate Republicans and House Democrats are at sharp odds over the next relief package — about the size, scope and policy — even as the coronavirus crisis facing the United States is threatening to further drag down the economy and send scores of more Americans into the jobless ranks.
As the Senate returns to session Monday after the public health crisis has effectively closed the Capitol for five weeks, Republicans remain wary about passing another sweeping measure after Congress has already approved nearly $3 trillion in legislation just this spring alone. GOP senators are also pushing back against the White House’s call for spending on infrastructure and President Donald Trump’s demand for a payroll tax cut, a sign of the sharp divisions even with more than 30 million Americans filing jobless claims since mid-March.
Tensions are running high in the Capitol as Senate Democrats protest the decision by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to reconvene while Washington, DC, experiences an uptick in coronavirus cases and the region remains under a stay-at-home order. Democrats are particularly incensed that the Senate is coming back into session with no imminent plans to take up relief legislation with the Senate’s second-ranking Democrat on Monday accusing McConnell of putting fellow senators’ health at risk.
In a sign of the difficulty that any negotiations will face, Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, a member of the Senate GOP leadership, told CNN Monday there isn’t “any appetite” for another major Covid-19 relief bill like the one envisioned by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a far-reaching proposal expected to be introduced in the House in days and that could mirror the new $2-trillion-plus stimulus law, the largest rescue package in American history.
Congressional Democratic leaders have made clear that they view additional funding for cash-strapped state and local governments as a non-negotiable with Pelosi saying last month: “There will not be a bill without state and local.”
They have also talked about the next package in sweeping terms, signaling that they want to enact a far-reaching measure. In a joint statement earlier this month, Pelosi and Schumer said that the next aid measure would need to “provide transformational relief” to the American public.
But Barrasso said he doesn’t believe state and local governments need additional money beyond the $150 billion provided in the stimulus law, even as Pelosi has suggested that there could be an additional $1 trillion for states and cities in the next round of Washington’s intervention into the economy.
“For right now, in terms of another big bill Schumer’s talking about, Nancy’s talking about, we don’t have any appetite for that,” Barrasso, who was wearing a blue mask as he walked through the Capitol, said in the interview. “We want to make sure that the money that’s being spent, is being spent well, we spent up to about $2.7 trillion and the states are asking for a lot more.”
Barrasso said that he is open to giving states and cities more flexibility in how to spend the $150 billion for coronavirus-related expenses, including for first responders, but he doesn’t believe they need any additional money.
“The question is do they need any more flexibility on how they spend that? I actually believe they do,” Barrasso said. “But I don’t believe that they need to have money on top of that.”
The pushback from a top member of Senate Republican leadership underscores the challenge that lays ahead for Congress as the pandemic continues to take a significant toll on the US economy and workforce and on public health and safety.
Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-highest ranked Senate Democrat, unloaded on McConnell’s decision to reconvene the Senate on Monday, saying that he is putting senators at risk in order to confirm a controversial judge to the second most important court in the land.
With no recovery legislation to consider, “I don’t think we should have come back,” said Durbin, who flew back to Washington while wearing a mask. “Coming back for Mitch McConnell’s former intern to get promoted to the second highest court on the land doesn’t fit the prescription of a national emergency.”
Durbin was referring to Justin Walker, a 38-year-old federal district court judge who did once intern for McConnell and now is nominated by Trump to sit on the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit. The Senate Judiciary Committee will hear his testimony Wednesday.
Asked if he believes McConnell is putting senators’ health at risk, Durbin replied, “Of course … We are surrounded by stay-at-home orders in DC and Maryland and Virginia .. and what do we have? A hearing on Justin Walker on Wednesday.”
Durbin added: “Does this sound like a compelling national emergency? something that draws us in and (puts us) at risk. I don’t think it does.”
McConnell defended his decision to bring the Senate back, arguing that they will be considering nominations for vital positions, including national security spots. He said if front-line workers can put their lives on the line, the Senate should be able to return and conduct its business safely.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, a member of Senate GOP leadership, pushed back on the criticism, saying: “Should we be curled up in the fetal position, and just demonstrate to the rest of the country that they shouldn’t show up and do their job if they can do so safely?”
Democrats and Republicans have both drawn red lines over what they want to see enacted next, signaling a looming fight.
McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, has indicated that he may be open to considering more money to help state and local governments, but only if it is conditioned on passing liability reforms to protect employers from a rash of lawsuits he believes will be aimed at them after the pandemic clears and businesses reopen. Democratic leaders have scoffed at that demand.
Asked by CNN on Monday about the possibility of finding a compromise over the liability issue, Schumer took issue with the demand, saying, “The bottom line is you shouldn’t be drawing lines in the sand as McConnell is doing, particularly when it comes to favoring big corporate executives and saying … they don’t have to have liability to protect their workers.”
With the Senate in session this week, Republicans will hold lunches from Tuesday to Thursday to discuss their next steps — but there may be points of contention between some GOP lawmakers and the administration.
Some Republican senators are already pushing back against the President’s call for a payroll tax cut to be part of future relief measures.
Trump said Sunday there will be no further stimulus bill signings that don’t include a deal to cut payroll taxes, saying in a Fox News town hall that he told Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, “We are not doing anything unless we get a payroll tax cut.”
Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Republican from Louisiana, threw cold water on the idea, saying: “That’s not the way I would tend to go. If you’re not working, it’s not going to benefit you. And I am very concerned about the shortfalls in the Medicare and Social Security trust funds. So for those two reasons, I would probably say no.”
Cassidy is also pushing for $500 billion for state and local governments, and pushed back on the notion voiced by Trump that the money is a bailout for blue states that manage their budgets poorly, saying: “I think if you’re talking about unfunded accrued liability, you might make a case for that. But if you just look at Moody’s, they’ll have states that are at risk that are both blue and red.”
Asked about Trump’s call for a payroll tax cut, Barrasso said the focus first should be on the tens of millions of people who are losing their jobs.
“I want to make sure we get the most bang for the buck. Thirty million people are out of work. I want to make sure that we’re focused on those people. There are advantages of a payroll tax cut for employers and employees. My focus is on the people that are today out of work. The best thing we can do for them, let’s get the economy going again and get people back to work.”
Barrasso said there might need to be more money for the small business loan program, even as Congress just authorized an additional $310 billion that is expected to run out of money within days.
“That’s my number one concern — making sure there’s enough funding for the Paycheck Protection Program,” Barrasso said. “And it may need to be refunded, and that’s the question is, how do you increase the funding? Is that another bill?”
House Democrats are demanding more money for mail-in voting, with Pelosi telling her colleagues that there needs to be a minimum of $2 billion in the next package for voting assistance, setting up yet another fight with Republicans over what comes next. She said it’s a public health issue given concerns that people could get ill from the coronavirus simply by going to the polls and exercising their right to vote.
But echoing calls from other Republicans, Barrasso said such a debate should happen separately from the next relief package.
“That should be done separate from the specifics of the coronavirus rescue and relief bills,” he said.
This story has been updated with additional developments Monday.