With the coronavirus pandemic still battering the United States, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell asked his fellow senators on Wednesday whether they “want to do something? Or do you want to do nothing?”
The answer looks to be … nothing.
With less than eight weeks to go before an election that will decide who controls the White House and the Senate, the two parties can’t even agree to begin debate on a narrow coronavirus relief bill costing roughly $500 billion that’s being pushed by McConnell and other Republicans leaders. Senate Democrats are expected to filibuster the GOP bill on Thursday, blocking any further action on the legislation for now. It took McConnell two months to round up at least 51 Republican senators to vote for a stimulus proposal because of policy disputes inside his own conference.
The Senate stalemate means Congress could leave Washington in early October having taken no new action in months to respond to one of the biggest economic and health crises ever to hit the United States. Leaders on both sides of the aisle — and top Trump administration officials — are apparently okay with the standoff, figuring that voters will decide soon who’s in the right, and who isn’t, even as hundreds of Americans die each day.
With so much stake, Republican and Democratic senators are ramping up their partisan rhetoric, trying to make sure they put the other party’s motives for the deadlock in the worst possible light.
“We should have never gone home in August,” lamented Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. “So Mitch McConnell now saying, ‘Well, the Democrats didn’t do anything, so we’re just going to go home,’ Mitch, we wanted to stay here in August. Why did we go home in August?”
“That’s beyond our control. That’s totally up to Sen. Schumer and Speaker Pelosi,” countered Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.). “What’s the point in staying here if neither the minority leader nor the speaker are going to negotiate? I mean, their position hasn’t changed.”
Yet doing nothing is an enormous political gamble for both sides, with potentially disastrous consequences for average Americans. The U.S. economy has improved somewhat in recent months, with unemployment falling from a terrifying 14 percent to a still historically high 8.4 percent in August, although millions of Americans have permanently stopped looking for work. Food insecurity and homelessness are rising, as are poverty rates. Income inequality is getting worse; the rich are getting richer during the pandemic while the poor are falling ever farther behind. And a huge percentage of the American public says they’re making less than they made only a year ago.
House Democrats passed the nearly $3.5 trillion Heroes Act in May, but McConnell and Republicans dismissed it as a “Democratic wish list.” McConnell and his GOP colleagues also said they needed more time to see how the economy responded to the bipartisan $2.2 trillion CARES Act passed in March.
In July, McConnell and the White House tried to come up with a GOP response to the Heroes Act, but he was never able to find consensus among Senate Republicans. Weeks of negotiations between the White House and Democratic leaders yielded no deal.
Now McConnell is anxious to show he can get 51 Senate Republicans behind any proposal, even this scaled-down version. Republicans insist it’s a big moment for them as a party, but it took them four months longer than Democrats to even craft a common plan.
“They don’t want to do a deal before the election because they think somehow that adversely affects their prospects in the election,” McConnell said of the Democrats on Wednesday. “The American people are not interested in those kinds of excuses.”
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) was even more blunt, saying Democrats want Americans to suffer so they can win the election.
“I think their judgment is if we have 50 million people who are alone, and broke, and unemployed, and pissed off, that it benefits Joe Biden politically,” Cruz asserted. “If you look at what Pelosi and Schumer are saying publicly and privately, they have zero interest in reaching a deal.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), however, dismissed the latest GOP effort as a “cynical” move, accusing Republicans of legislative malfeasance.
“Leader McConnell is not interested in passing a bill, not interested in helping the American people who are in pain, just scoring political points,” the New York Democrat said. “McConnell’s ploy won’t work because he’s not producing any real results.”
With the Senate up for grabs in November, McConnell is looking to protect his majority. Republicans acknowledge that the narrow GOP proposal is going nowhere, but they argue that the legislation will give vulnerable Republicans the opportunity to highlight their push for coronavirus relief when they go home to campaign in October.
“If we have something that they can vote for, which we will, … they can go back and talk about that and obviously point out that it’s the Dems who are blocking consideration,” said Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.). “The main thing for our 2020 class is to be able to demonstrate we’re trying to get a solution, and a realistic solution, not something that’s a pie-in-the-sky solution. If they point to that, then I think they got a good argument to make in their campaigns.”
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who faces a tough race against Army veteran and former state Sen. Cal Cunningham, said he’ll tell voters Schumer blocked the aid.
“I’m going to go back to the state and say I voted for it, Cal Cunningham’s future prospective boss is holding it up, and then let North Carolinians decide,” Tillis said.
It has taken McConnell months to get his own party even somewhat unified after a spate of public disagreements over the necessity and price tag of a new measure plagued the GOP and arguably hurt its negotiating hand with Democrats. If McConnell can get 51 out of 53 Republicans on board Thursday, it will be in no small part due to the handful of senators who went from “hell no” to “yes” on additional coronavirus relief measures.
However, the result will be the same as it was before senators skipped town for the monthlong August recess — no action.
“I don’t think people are going to accept nothing as the answer,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said. “I think they are willing to let this play out for a couple more weeks. But I just think they will be shocked to find out that Congress is going to walk away without anything being done.”
Schumer said Wednesday he hoped Republicans would return to the negotiating table after Thursday’s vote. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who is facing a competitive race, says she’s also not giving up.
“I believe we will get a result on Covid relief,” Collins said, because the vote “will help jump-start true negotiations.”
But some senators acknowledge that when it comes to coronavirus relief, Congress may do what it does best — nothing.
“I didn’t feel like I could go home this time in August, but I had no choice,” said Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), the most endangered incumbent in the Senate. But Jones acknowledged he could go back home in October with the same result.
“I may have to. I may have no choice. It’s not my choice,” Jones said.