Politico

Senate Republicans cringe at Trump's stimulus negotiations


The coronavirus stimulus talks between Nancy Pelosi and Steven Mnuchin have been excruciating. But they’ll fuel an even more painful firefight within the GOP if the speaker and Treasury secretary can somehow get a deal.

The bulk of the Senate GOP is resistant to the spending numbers being tossed around by Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Mnuchin, meaning a majority of Republicans in the GOP-controlled Senate would likely vote against a deal in the ballpark of $2 trillion. And that’s if the legislation even comes up at all.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said only the Senate would “consider” any such agreement, with no promise of a floor vote or whether it would have his support. He offered no more specificity to reporters on Monday.

It is quite unusual for the Trump administration to negotiate legislation that turns off most members of Congress in President Donald Trump’s own party. If all Senate Democrats supported the legislation, it would still need more than a dozen Republicans to clear the 60-vote threshold needed to overcome a filibuster.

And GOP leaders are looking dimly at the prospect of waltzing a bill with mostly Democratic support through the Senate, even if it does have the president’s backing.

Republicans’ “natural instinct, depending on how big it is, and what’s in it, is probably going to be to be against it,” said Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.). “I think we’re going to have a hard time finding 13 votes for anything.”

Senate Republicans have been on the attack now for weeks, hoping to send a signal to the Trump administration that they far prefer touting the impending Supreme Court confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett over a debilitating intra-party fight over a relief bill right before the election. McConnell has privately expressed concern about a coronavirus deal delaying Barrett’s confirmation, according to someone who has spoken to him.

Some GOP senators have also warned it would damper enthusiasm for Republicans at the ballot box, while Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) simply said Monday that $1.8 trillion or more is “way too high.”

“It would divide Republicans if it’s anything like the kind of contours we hear about,” said Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), a fiscal conservative.

Trump has presented a cheery view of the possibility of getting sufficient Republican support. When asked last week during an NBC town hall whether Senate Republicans would go for a big number on a stimulus, Trump predicted: “they’ll go.”

And given the number of Republican senators in tough re-election races, it’s conceivable that some of them would support a massive spending deal.

“I’m glad they’re still talking. I think we do need a COVID-19 package. But it does depend on what’s in it,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who is up for reelection.

Senate Republicans are far more enthusiastic about their more targeted, $500 billion legislation for schools, hospitals and small businesses that will see a vote this week. The party has unified around that proposal and had high hopes of hammering Senate Democrats if they opposed it.

But as long as Mnuchin and Pelosi are still talking about hundreds of billions in aid for states and cities and extending expired unemployment insurance coffers, there’s little reason for Democrats to feel any political pressure to take a lower number from McConnell.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) called McConnell’s legislation this week a “partisan bill so full of poison pills that it is obvious he designed it to fail.” He said the most offensive portion is a broad corporate immunity shield amid the coronavirus pandemic.

A Pelosi-Mnuchin deal did not appear imminent Monday as the speaker ticked off many of the outstanding disputes during a private call with House Democrats. Pelosi said she and Mnuchin were still haggling over several key issues including appropriations for state and local aid and language covering liability and worker protections — a Republican demand which she described as “a big nut to crack.”

Pelosi has given Mnuchin until the end of Tuesday to reach an agreement — a timeline Democrats say is necessary if a bill is to be passed before the election. And she directed her committee chairmen to begin working with Republican ranking members to “reconcile differences” after another hour long call with Mnuchin on Monday afternoon.

But even the process of simply drafting the bill and haggling over all the particulars in the House and Senate appropriations committee will take days.

“I want this as soon as possible because I don’t want to carry over the droppings of this grotesque elephant into the next presidency,” Pelosi said on the call, according to two Democratic sources. “We’ve got to get something big and we’ve got it done soon and we’ve got to get it done right.”

A number of Republican senators were keeping their options open on Monday night as the chances for a deal, while low, were still alive. Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who had panned ongoing discussions between Mnuchin and Pelosi for sending too much money to blue states, was among the senators taking a wait-and-see approach on Monday.

“If there’s an agreement, I think we should try and vote on it before the election,” added Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of GOP leadership. “But I’m skeptical there can be an agreement.”

As majority leader, McConnell could decide simply not to hold a vote before the election, too. That would provoke a fight with Trump, but it might be the more popular position among Senate Republicans.

That’s because some of McConnell’s diehard conservative members are worried that if a roughly $2 trillion coronavirus bill does get a vote in the GOP-controlled Senate, it would narrowly pass.

“You’ll lose a lot of Republicans on whatever that is,” said Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), who would oppose it. But he conceded: “If they bring it up for a vote, I’m guessing there will be enough to get it across the finish line.”

Heather Caygle contributed to this report.

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