Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell isn’t typically one to jettison half his conference. But with an election on the line, coronavirus aid is the exception.
McConnell and senior senators on Monday unveiled their proposal for the next COVID-19 relief package, calling for liability protections and hundreds of billions of dollars in funding for health care providers, economic aid, and schools.
In doing so, the Republican leader is prioritizing vulnerable incumbents up for reelection this year over the budget hawks who won’t face voters for another cycle or two.
“Inaction is a nonstarter,” said Scott Jennings, a former McConnell adviser. “Whether you're looking at this through a political lens or just through the lens of objectively speaking what's happening in the country to people, it's a nonstarter for the government to do nothing.
“And I do think the Senate Republicans who are on the ballot in the various places, no matter where they are, they cannot go home and say, ‘Yeah, we’ve spent enough,’” Jennings added. “It’s just not an answer.”
More than a half-dozen Republican senators on the ballot this year are clamoring for action, including McConnell. On the Senate floor Monday, he proposed the collective package as a starting point for negotiations with Democrats.
“The American people need more help,” McConnell said. “They need it to be comprehensive, and they need it to be carefully tailored to this crossroads. That is what this Senate majority has assembled.”
Republicans’ introduction of legislation kicks off negotiations with Democrats, who have been eager to start with talks since the House passed a much larger relief package more than two months ago.
“Even after all the delay, even after Leader McConnell put the Senate on pause for three months, Senate Republicans and the White House were so unprepared and so divided they couldn't even agree on a proposal among themselves,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said on the floor.
A number of fiscal conservatives have repeatedly told reporters in recent weeks that they oppose additional spending to contain the crisis. Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, both ambitious conservatives who have sought the presidency, reiterated those concerns.
“There is significant resistance to yet another trillion dollars,” Cruz said. “The answer to these challenges will not simply be shoveling cash out of Washington.”
But the bills are nonetheless moving forward. Republican incumbents whose success in November is critical to retaining the Senate majority have staked large claims in the next response.
Sen. Martha McSally, who is running in a closely watched special election to fill the remainder of Sen. John McCain’s term, said in a statement to National Journal that she supports additional funding for testing, treatments, cures, vaccines, hospitals, nursing homes, small businesses, schools, and aid to local communities to provide for “essential services, such as law enforcement and first responders.”
McSally said she also supports “expanded unemployment benefits.” A provision in the CARES Act expires Friday that adds $600 a week to state unemployment insurance. Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley’s bill would cut that number to $200 with the goal of replacing 70 percent of lost wages.
“I urge Congress to come together in a bipartisan way to support Arizonans and Americans as we confront this unprecedented challenge and emerge stronger as a unified nation,” McSally said.
Sen. Susan Collins, facing her toughest election yet in Maine, helped craft another round of small-business loans after shepherding the popular Paycheck Protection Program. Legislation introduced Monday by her and Sen. Marco Rubio dedicates $190 billion toward another round of PPP loans for small businesses that have lost at least half of their revenue.
It also puts $100 billion toward a long-term, low-cost loan program to businesses that are seasonal or located in low-income areas.
“I hope that our proposal will help advance bipartisan negotiations to extend this vital program before Aug. 8, when applications will no longer be accepted,” Collins said in a floor speech. “There are so many small employers and their employees who have been kept afloat by the first PPP loans they received but need a second one to survive this persistent pandemic.”
Collins also took to heart the calls of her colleagues up for reelection who have made the case for restaurants in their state. A week after Sens. Cory Gardner, Steve Daines, Thom Tillis, Joni Ernst, and Shelley Moore Capito sent a letter urging Senate leadership to cover costs for raw materials, supplies, and inventory, Rubio’s office said the bill covers supplier costs “essential to the recipient’s current operations.”
Daines, facing a stiff challenge for a second term in Montana, earlier this month sent a letter to McConnell and Schumer urging them to include “robust funding” for COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. He also said last week that he supports additional funding for schools, health care providers, nursing homes, and tribal governments.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby introduced legislation to that effect, dedicating nearly three quarters of his $306 billion emergency funding bill toward health and education priorities. That along with Senate HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander’s bill would beef up the national testing capacity.
Senate Republican leadership borrowed directly from legislation drafted by their most vulnerable colleagues. Included in Shelby and Alexander's bills is legislation modeled on Ernst’s proposal with nine months of funding for child-care providers that follow local safety requirements. Daines previously cosponsored the measure.
“Montana has been hit very hard economically due to the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing over 100,000 Montanans to file for unemployment,” Daines said in a statement. “That’s why I introduced this bill to help get Montanans back to work and ensure folks have the support and training they need to fill available jobs once the COVID-19 pandemic ends.”
McSally, along with Sens. John Cornyn, David Perdue, Dan Sullivan, and Mike Rounds, is backing Sen. Mitt Romney’s bill, reintroduced as part of the Republicans’ gambit, that would set forth a process for passing legislation shoring up endangered trust funds.
On Monday, Cornyn introduced legislation pushed by McConnell that would shield frontline workers following public health guidelines from COVID-19 exposure claims if they are not grossly negligent.
“In order for our country to recover, the workers and institutions we depend on now need to know with confidence that if they are operating in good faith and obeying health guidelines, they are not going to become victims of a feeding frenzy,” Cornyn said from the Senate chamber.
Republicans are under increased pressure to act as key protections for the unemployed and those facing eviction expired.
Democrats and their allies angling to unseat GOP senators in battleground states have made the coronavirus central to their campaign messaging. Several attack ads characterize the incumbents as deferential to pharmaceutical and insurance companies while voting against health care and insurance benefits for constituents struggling to make ends meet during the pandemic.
“After a two-week break and days of embarrassing infighting in Washington, Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans took a long weekend off, ignoring the personal financial struggle families across this country face,” said Stewart Boss, a spokesperson for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “It’s another stunning failure in a series of self-serving political maneuvers that have made this public health and economic crisis worse, and voters won’t forget it.”
Voters are hearing that message at home. Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff, who is awaiting COVID-19 test results after coming down with symptoms, launched a television ad on Monday against November opponent Perdue for downplaying the virus and leaving the state “unprepared.”
A day earlier, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees unveiled a national cable ad buy calling for the Senate to fund state and local governments or risk “painful cuts to essential public services.”
Last week, Democratic political nonprofit Majority Forward, which is aligned with Schumer, released a TV ad that criticized Ernst’s coronavirus response. The ad highlights that COVID-19 qualifies as a preexisting condition and goes on to claim that “Ernst voted four times to let insurance companies deny coverage for preexisting conditions.”
Majority Forward also took aim at Collins and Daines. In Maine, the group financed a TV ad criticizing Collins for “protecting Donald Trump” when she “should be condemning Donald Trump’s inaction” on the coronavirus. In Montana, the group’s ad slams Daines for giving tax breaks to drug and insurance companies, who are “the only ones profiting off” the coronavirus.
Democratic outside group Honest Arizona launched an attack ad targeting McSally for “not supporting extending unemployment insurance” to help those impacted by coronavirus job cuts and instead pitching a “bill to give wealthy families a $24,000 tax break to go on vacation.” A similar ad that Advancing AZ released in July criticized McSally for “letting unemployment insurance expire this month.”
"There are a lot of unknowns, anxiety, and anger on how this crisis has been mismanaged from Trump and McConnell and even Republicans who have failed in their own states,” said Majority Forward spokesperson Rachel Irwin. “We are absolutely going to keep the pressure on.”