Hopes fade for coronavirus relief deal before June

Striking a bipartisan deal over a new coronavirus relief bill is becoming increasingly unlikely before June with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) at odds over additional legislation.

Though the House is expected to vote on a $3 trillion bill as soon as Friday, that piece of legislation has been declared “dead on arrival” in the Senate, where Republicans are taking a wait-and-see approach.

The stalemate almost certainly ensures the House, Senate and White House won’t get an agreement on, and pass, another rescue package before the Memorial Day recess. Senators say that while they expect to pass something eventually, it probably won’t happen between now and next Friday when the recess begins.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) quipped that trying to pass a bill under that time frame would be “political malpractice.”

“Oh God, no,” he said, asked if the Senate would pass something by the Memorial Day recess.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), asked if the Senate would wait until after the break to pass a fifth bill, said, “I don’t think there’s a sense of urgency to do it now.”

“A lot of the money we’ve already appropriated hasn’t … even gone out the door yet,” he added.

If the Senate doesn’t pass a bill before May 22, that will kick any potential vote until June at the earliest. The Senate typically leaves town on Thursday afternoon, giving lawmakers four working days if they wanted to try to take up a bill — something leadership in both parties said is unrealistic.

“That’s probably going to be covered a lot by the feedback we’re getting, the oversight that we’re doing on the money that’s already been spent and when we need to sort of reload,” said Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican, when asked when a proposal would get to the floor.

“Right now, I think the sense is we’re looking at assessing what we’ve done so far,” he added.

Asked if it was more likely that the Senate waited until after the Memorial Day break to take up a bill, Thune added: “Yeah, I think so.”

Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), Thune’s Democratic counterpart, said he expected the Senate will need to pass another rescue bill. But pressed if that would happen before Memorial Day, he responded: “No, no. I don’t think so. It’s the end of the next week.”

“I think the House is likely to take some action … and it’s unlikely the Senate will move to this measure before the Memorial Day break,” he said.

Talk of doing a new relief bill comes as the coronavirus continues to ravage the economy, even as some states are starting to lift social distancing restrictions that forced businesses to close some temporarily, others permanently. More than 36 million Americans have filed for unemployment since mid-March, according to the Labor Department.

The pandemic’s death toll worldwide passed the 300,000 mark on Wednesday. As of late Thursday afternoon, there were more than 1.4 million cases in the United States and more than 85,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data.

McConnell and other Republicans are calling for a “pause” on additional legislation to respond to the crisis, even though some GOP lawmakers are weighing potential ideas for what would be a fifth piece of legislation in response to the crisis.

“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,” McConnell told reporters Monday.

McConnell, during an interview on Fox News on Thursday night, said he thought there was a “high likelihood” Congress would need to pass a fifth bill but declined to give a timeline, including if it would be “soon.”

“I think we all believe that another bill probably is going to be necessary. But I’m not prepared today to put a precise date on when that will be,” he said.

The GOP leader’s remarks come as several members of his caucus, himself included, have raised concerns about the long-term fiscal impact of money Congress has already appropriated and how it will affect the country’s debt. Those concerns have sparked charges of hypocrisy from Democrats, who note that Republicans embraced a 2017 tax bill that’s contributed heavily to rising debt.

Congress has passed several relief bills that total nearly $2.8 trillion — roughly the combined total of fiscal 2019 and 2020 discretionary spending for the entire federal government.

Instead of more spending, McConnell is focused on drafting liability protection legislation with Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) that could be unveiled as soon as next week. That bill, according to McConnell, would create a “legal safe harbor” for businesses, nonprofits, governments, workers and schools reopening after weeks or months of stay-at-home orders.

Democrats have slammed McConnell for not coming to the negotiating table to discuss what a fifth rescue bill would look like, with Durbin predicting that “the pressure will grow on the Republicans” once the House passes its measure.

Republicans, in turn, have warned that they won’t be jammed by Pelosi just because the House moved first.

“Not at all,” said Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), when asked if Republicans would be pressured to offer a counterproposal. “Throwing a trillion dollars at the states, changing the way voting is done, doesn’t sound like even a meaningful first step.”

The House bill includes more money for state and local governments, additional funding for food assistance and another round of stimulus checks.

Pelosi, during a press conference on Thursday, characterized the House bill as an opening salvo.

“We’re putting our offer on the table. We’re open to negotiation,” Pelosi said. “Here’s our offer. Let’s see where you are.”

But asked why he wasn’t viewing the House bill as a “first serve” that could be “volleyed” between the two chambers, McConnell argued that the House bill was “hardly salvageable,” a “liberal wish list” and a “parade of absurdities.”

The previous bills have largely been negotiated with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin doing shuttle diplomacy between McConnell and Democratic leaders. In a sign of how far apart leadership is to an agreement, Pelosi said she hasn’t negotiated with Mnuchin since late March, aside from talks on the Paycheck Protection Program.

Senate Republicans are signaling they want to get an understanding with the White House before they start talks with Democrats. McConnell noted that he had been in touch with Mnuchin as recently as Wednesday.

McConnell, noting that he’s in touch with the administration, told reporters that “if we reach a decision along with the administration to move to another phase, that’ll be the time to interact with the Democrats.”

During an interview with radio host Hugh Hewitt, Thune echoed those remarks, saying Republicans should first coalesce behind their own position.

“I hope what happens is that the White House works with Senate Republicans to put together an agenda that makes sense, that addresses the economic and health emergency needs of the American people,” he said. “That we can bring Democrats in to negotiate and to find some common ground.”

Tags Coronavirus COVID-19 Dick Durbin John Cornyn John Thune Lindsey Graham Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Pandemic relief bill Steven Mnuchin Stimulus Tim Scott

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