WASHINGTON ― With President Donald Trump potentially a lame duck and Republicans looking like they could hold on to the Senate, a worst-case scenario could be emerging for a big coronavirus relief package.
Trump could easily lose interest in juicing the economy for an incoming President Joe Biden. And Republican senators could be reluctant to approve spending for any president, as a sudden wave of fiscal conservatism washes over their conference. Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Democrats could find themselves at a standstill, if they are waiting for Biden to take office and are forced to negotiate with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
McConnell’s interest in a coronavirus deal has always been limited. He’s maintained some openness to another stimulus, but he’s largely deferred the negotiating to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and the Trump administration. If the trend lines continue in the presidential race results, however, McConnell would be the top elected Republican in Washington, and his willingness to negotiate a deal on economic relief would be a key variable.
If that’s the case, McConnell will have considerable leverage. He said Wednesday that Congress should pass the much smaller relief package that he put up for a floor vote last month.
“I think we need to do it and I think we need to do it before the end of the year,” McConnell said at a news conference in Louisville, Kentucky.
Democrats never expected to have 60 votes in the Senate, but they did anticipate having a majority, which looks less likely as vote totals continue to come in. A majority would have allowed Democrats to pass a coronavirus relief bill through reconciliation next year. Or, at the very least, bring up a bill for a vote, putting vulnerable Republicans to the test on opposing popular programs like enhanced unemployment and stimulus checks.
But if Republicans control the Senate, there’s no chance of a reconciliation bill ― or even forcing a vote. Instead, Pelosi and McConnell would have to reach agreement on their differences.
A senior Democratic aide familiar with the negotiations said that if Biden wins but Democrats don’t take the Senate, nobody knows whether Trump would support a lame-duck deal, but Democrats might be in a better position come January.
“In January, a Democratic house is going to want to act and a Democratic president is going to want to act and it’s a question of how much heat we can put on Senate Republicans,” the aide said.
The problem with waiting is that new coronavirus infections are at an all-time high, hundreds of thousands of workers are still getting laid off every week, renters are facing a wave of evictions, and more than 5 million unemployed people will abruptly lose benefits at the end of December.
“It’s almost hard to comprehend just how much pain and suffering will be inflicted by not extending enhanced unemployment benefits,” said Andy Stettner, an unemployment insurance expert with The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank. “Even during the harshest reduction of benefits during the Reagan era, benefits have never been cut off when the unemployment rate is this high.”
“The Republican Party seems poised to do to Joe Biden what it did to President Barack Obama ― withhold support for legislation that would mitigate vast amounts of human suffering because a better economy would help a Democratic president.”
In the early weeks of the pandemic, lawmakers sprang into action, passing a series of relief bills that included direct cash payments to most American households, an ambitious new program to keep people on their employers’ payrolls, a moratorium on evictions from federally subsidized apartments, and an extra $600 per week in unemployment insurance.
Lawmakers assumed the coronavirus pandemic would go away within a few months, however, and the relief programs were temporary and have mostly expired. Meanwhile, coronavirus cases are soaring while monthly job gains have been lower each month since June.
After four years of adding to the federal budget deficit with new spending and tax cuts under Trump, Senate Republicans began grumbling about the national debt as Trump’s reelection chances slimmed.
Under McConnell’s leadership, the Republican Party seems poised to do to Joe Biden what it did to President Barack Obama ― withhold support for legislation that would mitigate vast amounts of human suffering because a better economy would help a Democratic president.
“We’ve got to understand that we’ve got to get our fiscal house in order,” Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) said last week regarding negotiations between Democrats and the administration. “You can’t say I’m just going to go spend whatever it takes to get the other side to agree. Let’s do the things that are important but we can’t be wasting your money. Somebody is going to have to pay for this.”
One of the biggest sticking points in negotiations has been liability protections. McConnell has insisted on language disallowing coronavirus-related lawsuits. Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) have insisted a bill not have those provisions. When Democrats were negotiating with the Trump administration, the liability protections seemed to be less of an impasse.
The idea all along was that, if Pelosi and Mnuchin could reach a deal in a timely fashion, Trump could pressure McConnell to put a bill ― even if it were one he didn’t love ― up for a vote and let a small number of GOP senators join Democrats in passing a stimulus.
But Trump may be more interested in fighting the election result on Twitter than cutting a deal on Capitol Hill.
Igor Bobic contributed reporting.