The U.S. keeps shedding jobs by the millions, a deepening economic calamity that has the Federal Reserve pleading with Congress to keep its foot on the gas in providing Americans additional fiscal relief amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
But to many Republicans, the daunting situation calls for introspection and not further legislative action on major programs to help people struggling to make ends meet.
“I don’t think we have yet felt the urgency of acting immediately. That time could develop, but I don’t think it has yet,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said earlier this week, urging lawmakers to instead consider the trillions that Congress has already appropriated to emergency coronavirus relief programs.
“Nobody is questioning that we may need additional money to address this crisis,” added Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) on Wednesday. “But it’s important to remember that every dollar of what we’ve appropriated for coronavirus is borrowed money.”
Since returning to Washington two weeks ago, the Republican-controlled Senate has done no legislating directly related to the coronavirus pandemic. It has held several hearings on testing and reopening the economy, as well as one for an inspector general nominee in charge of oversight of major relief programs, including the $2 trillion stimulus package Congress passed in March.
Other than coalescing around a yet-to-be-unveiled proposal to shield corporations and health care providers from lawsuits, Senate Republicans and the Trump administration appear satisfied with a wait-and-see approach on further spending, even as jobless claims hit 36 million and deaths from the virus crossed the 86,000 mark this week.
The slowdown has left Democrats, who introduced another massive $3 trillion emergency relief measure in the House, screaming for more federal action.
“Just how long will it take, how much economic hardship will suffice, before Senate Republicans feel the urgency to act?” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) asked in a floor speech Thursday.
While speaking with HuffPost, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) addressed the majority leader: “We’ve already hit the pause, Mitch. You want to hit the stop or the pause? The pause has already been hit. Next thing you hit stop, I guess. We’ve still got people hurting.”
Their case was echoed on Wednesday by Federal Reserve Chairman Jay Powell, who was picked for the job by President Donald Trump. Appearing on a livestream sponsored by the Peterson Institute for International Economics, Powell urged Congress to continue providing stimulus, warning that failing to do so would only prolong the nation’s economic recovery in the future.
“Additional fiscal support could be costly, but worth it if it helps avoid long-term economic damage and leaves us with a stronger recovery,” Powell said. “This tradeoff is one for our elected representatives, who wield powers of taxation and spending.”
But conservative senators anxious about the added levels of debt were unswayed by calls for more federal spending, including to finance another round of economic relief payments from the federal government. Congress provided most Americans with stimulus checks of up to $1,200, with an additional $500 per child, but many Democratic lawmakers are pushing for more direct aid to Americans. The bill unveiled by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) includes a second wave of $1,200 payments with more inclusive eligibility requirements.
“I would be glad to do that if we weren’t stacking on this deficit on the $25 trillion existing deficit. ... There is not an unlimited borrowing in the world,” Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said when asked about Powell’s comments.
Not every Republican believes the Senate should be hitting the brakes on more government spending to address the coronavirus pandemic, however.
Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), a freshman senator who has been floated as a potential presidential candidate in 2024, proposed a radical program along with Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) that would subsidize business’ payrolls during the crisis. The plan calls for the federal government to reimburse 80% of wages up to $50,000 to keep workers on payroll through the year ― with more provided to employers who rehire workers who have been laid off.
The idea is modeled after countries like Germany and Denmark. Senate Democrats introduced a similar measure this month, though the legislation authored by House Democrats did not include direct government payroll support.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) also introduced a plan to provide front-line workers with hazard pay during the pandemic, the only GOP lawmaker to endorse such a proposal. The initiative would compensate essential workers who now face a greater risk of contracting the coronavirus, like people in the health care or food processing industries.
But Hawley and Romney remain outliers within the broader Senate GOP conference. Republican leaders are continuing to push for added employer liability protections and don’t expect actual negotiating with House Democrats to take place for at least several more weeks.
Trump, meanwhile, seems more focused on former President Barack Obama and his vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive 2020 Democratic presidential nominee. On Thursday, the president urged the Senate Judiciary Committee to call Obama to testify regarding something he’s referred to as “OBAMAGATE.”
Asked Thursday about the 20% unemployment rate and the tens of millions of Americans out of work, Trump quickly interjected, seeking to absolve himself of responsibility.
“Nobody blames me for that,” the president said in interview with Fox News.
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