'Skinny' Bill Brings GOP Unity but Doesn't Resolve Splits on Covid-19 Aid - WSJ
By: Andrew Duehren and Kristina Peterson (WSJ)
WASHINGTON—The pared-down coronavirus bill the Senate will take up Thursday is aimed at unifying Republicans behind a relief proposal and rebutting Democrats’ criticism that the GOP hasn’t been able to muster support for its own bill.
But that GOP solidarity will be quickly tested if stalled talks between the White House and Democrats begin again. While many Republican lawmakers have pledged to support the GOP’s latest $300 billion Senate effort , a significant number of them are resistant to a bigger package. Democrats and negotiators from the White House have been at odds over the price tag of another bill for months, with no meetings currently scheduled.
Still, Republicans say they hope that a vote on the new bill could help revive dormant talks and provide political cover to lawmakers running in competitive races this fall who have faced fire for failing to pass another deal. More than 50 of the 53 Senate Republicans are expected to support the bill Thursday, though Democrats are set to oppose the procedural step, blocking the legislation.
“My assumption would be that that would probably be the high-water mark for Republican votes, and then there’d have to be obviously a trade-off and there’ll be some combination of Republicans and Democrats for the next bill, assuming there is one,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R., Texas).
Policy divisions in the GOP ranks have been a complicating factor for Republicans since efforts to pass a fifth coronavirus relief bill began in July. While Democrats have largely remained in sync with their leaders’ proposals, some GOP senators have blanched at the price tag of another round of aid and made clear they would prefer little or no additional deficit spending, on top of the roughly $3 trillion approved so far.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has said the Trump administration could support a roughly $1.5 trillion deal.
PHOTO: GRAEME JENNINGS/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGE
Disagreements between the White House and Senate Republicans delayed the release of the party’s first proposal in July, a $1 trillion measure . That GOP bill never came to the floor of the Senate for a vote, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) had said repeatedly over the summer that as many as 20 Republicans would oppose any additional aid.
The new legislation strips several provisions from the initial Republican plan—including one sending another $1,200 check directly to many Americans—and calls for about $650 billion in spending, which would be offset by $350 billion in repurposed funds. That would bring the total price tag to around $300 billion in new spending, leading some lawmakers to dub it as a “skinny” bill compared with the original $1 trillion proposal.
“The reason why we are at this specific package is because this is what we could find consensus after literally weeks of discussion and research,” said Sen. Mike Rounds (R., S.D.). “And so it’s doing the best we can do at this point with the information we have.”
But any agreement between Democrats and the White House will likely cost substantially more than the $300 billion Senate Republicans are now proposing.
Democrats had rallied around a $3.5 trillion package that passed the House in May, though House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) has said she would accept a $2.2 trillion bill. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who has conducted talks with Democrats alongside White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, said last week that the administration could support a roughly $1.5 trillion deal.
Several Senate Republicans said they wouldn’t support a $1.5 trillion bill because of concerns about rising debt levels. Unemployment fell sharply to 8.4% in August , when several previous relief measures expired, an encouraging development for some conservatives who oppose passing another major economic package.
“You can see the dynamic. Mnuchin, Meadows and Democrats have got one lane of conversation going, and they’re far apart even there,” said Sen. Mike Braun (R., Ind.). “Here there were many of us on the more conservative side of the ledger who got together over the last 10 days, two weeks and said, ‘Hey, let’s target it.’ ”
Senate Republicans say that the $300 billion consists of measures—among them restoring some of an expired unemployment benefit as well as providing funding for schools and vaccine development—that should be uncontroversial.
“There are things that Democrats would like to add to this bill or maybe even increase a little bit in this bill, but there are very few, if any, things in this bill that a dozen Democrats couldn’t easily be for,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R., Mo.).
Mrs. Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) said in a statement that the bill was “laden with poison pills Republicans know Democrats would never support.”
Democrats face their own set of internal divisions on the next coronavirus response. Some House Democrats facing competitive re-election races this fall are calling on Mrs. Pelosi to strike a deal with Republicans. Other House Democrats want the House to pass measures focused on specific policy topics, like unemployment insurance. Mrs. Pelosi so far hasn’t changed her approach.
The first four coronavirus relief bills, which totaled roughly $3 trillion, soared through Congress in the spring, when the virus was first spreading across the country and many Republicans dropped their opposition to large government spending efforts. Nearly unanimous GOP support is unlikely to materialize for any future coronavirus relief bill.
“You don’t need 50 or 51 or 52 Republicans to pass the final bill,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R., Ohio).