The ink is barely dry on Congress’ latest $484 billion check to combat the coronavirus pandemic, but an epic fight over the next massive relief bill is already in full tilt.
Democrats failed to secure billions for reeling state and local governments in the last round, and they vow the money will be the centerpiece of the next chapter of talks. But they’re running into a buzz saw named Mitch McConnell.
“As a general proposition, my experience with Democrats over the years is there’s nothing they love better than an opportunity to spend money,” McConnell (R-Ky.) said in an interview this week.
The Senate majority leader is ridiculing the idea of sending aid to beleaguered states and has even suggested he’d prefer states declare bankruptcy rather than get rescued by the federal government — drawing gasps from Democratic leaders.
“Did he actually say those words?” asked a stunned Washington Sen. Patty Murray, the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate. “The world is upside down. It is not time to say to a family, a business, a government agency, anywhere, to go bankrupt.”
Moreover, McConnell said on Kentucky radio on Thursday that Congress should “press the pause button” on any new aid, and that the full Senate must be in town to pass the next coronavirus bill. That conflicts with Democrats’ timeline, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi arguing the next phase is needed “as soon as possible.”
The early battle lines over what to include and when to do it suggest the next clash will be even more brutal than previous episodes — divisions that have already led to delays on assistance for small businesses, hospitals, the unemployed and coronavirus testing. Meanwhile, the economy continues to crater, and the death toll rises.
Despite temporary bouts of gridlock this spring, Congress has delivered nearly $3 trillion against the pandemic in an unprecedented, bipartisan rescue effort. But the forecast for future cooperation is cloudy at best.
“I do worry that the political honeymoon may be ending,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.).
Democrats seem intent on moving quickly with more aid bills, eager to fight the spread of the disease while helping record numbers of unemployed and laying the groundwork for a broader economic recovery.
House Democrats are adamant they cannot wait weeks, let alone months, to deliver more relief for cash-strapped state and local governments. Pelosi has said the need is “immediate,” and some members of her leadership team speculate the vote could happen soon after Congress’ scheduled return on May 4.
“It’s not even ‘immediately.’ We’re working on it now,” said Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois, who runs the party’s campaign arm.
She said Democrats view the legislation approved by the House on Thursday as “an interim package.”
“This buys us a little time, but there’s more we have to do, namely, state and local governments,” Bustos said, adding that she and her staff are fielding calls almost daily from desperate mayors and local officials.
Pelosi told her members on a caucus call this week that the next phase — which Democrats are calling CARES 2 — is nearly finished. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters Thursday that the goal is to complete the package by May 4 and vote soon after, though he wouldn’t say when exactly it could come to the floor.
Key committee leaders have spent weeks assembling their priorities, starting with $150 billion in aid for state and local governments. But many House Democrats, particularly on the left, are eyeing a much longer to-do list — monthly cash assistance, protections for renters, money to boost mail-in voting and free health care coverage for coronavirus patients.
As the House met Thursday to take up the latest package, Democrats lined up to rail against McConnell for blocking extra money for cities and states. McConnell and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin took a hard line against including that money in the most recent tranche of aid.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) — who has pushed his state’s delegation to pressure congressional leaders for relief — on Thursday called McConnell’s stance “one of the really dumb ideas of all time.” States don’t have the ability to declare bankruptcy under current law.
Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.), who represents a slice of Manhattan, compared the situation to the New York Daily News’ “Ford to City: Drop Dead” headline.
“Leader McConnell said to our cities and states, to our cops and firemen and teachers, he told them to drop dead,” roared Rep. Max Rose (D-N.Y.), who represents Staten Island, where more than 500 people have died.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) countered that Democrats are going to be severely disappointed if they are placing their bets on a big cash infusion for states and cities without restrictions in the coming weeks: “They didn’t get it this time and I don’t think they’ll get it in the future.”
“There are a lot of Democratic senators who want a no strings attached bailout for their states because of imprudent fiscal decisions in the past. And obviously we’re not going to agree to that,” Cotton said.
Still some Senate and House Republicans have endorsed providing more money for states. Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana is advocating for more spending for state and local governments to dig themselves out of a widening revenue hole and several other senators, like Mitt Romney of Utah and Rob Portman of Ohio, have sounded supportive notes as well. And President Donald Trump says he’s open to relief for cities and states in the next package.
But that’s not a position shared overwhelmingly in the GOP and McConnell’s stance reflects the ambivalence among conservatives to helping blue states like New York. Plus, the Kentucky Republican hates dividing his conference, and the issue could weaken his negotiating hand.
Privately, some Republicans said the party could potentially swallow sending some money with strict controls on it to states for coronavirus relief, not to address ailing pension funds. And Cotton suggested that flexibility to use previous money allocated to states was a more palatable option.
But Republicans say they’re more interested in getting the economy restarted by lifting lockdowns recommended by public health officials than plunging into another round of spending. Few in the GOP are urging Congress to rush into another bill.
“There’s going to be some hard discussion about it,” said Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.). He said he didn’t want to see new relief legislation “unless it would be absolutely necessary and only for a few sectors that have been disproportionately hurt.”
Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.