U.S. senators left Washington this week without taking action on another round of legislation to respond to the continuing COVID-19 crisis. Why has this proven so difficult? Like many other issues to face Congress in recent years, it has a lot to do with divisions among Republicans.
Recent weeks have seen two hallmarks of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) approach to legislating, especially during the Trump era: trying to use a deadline—real or manufactured—to force favorable action, and in the words of the Washington Post’s Robert Costa, letting “[White House] players new and old try to take the lead in talks. Then when things fall apart, he talks to the president and gives him the 11th hour options.” The problem is, however, that sometimes, both strategies have failed—occasionally spectacularly. In late 2018, for example, after weeks of efforts by the White House to secure funding for a border wall, the McConnell-led Senate tried to avoid a shutdown by adopting a short-term spending bill that would have kept the government open. But when a group of House Republicans—led in part by now-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows (R-N.C.)—convinced the president to hold out for a measure that contained money for the wall, the federal government ended up partially shut down for a record 35 days.
This approach—which, again, requires delay if it is to be successful—has been deployed in pursuit of McConnell’s underlying goal: to preserve the Republicans’ Senate majority in 2020. In the current circumstances, however, it is unclear that there is agreement among his rank-and-file colleagues about what kind of policy response achieves that goal—or whether one is even necessary. There are six seats held by Republicans that Democrats have a reasonable possibility of winning in November—in Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Maine, Montana, and North Carolina—as compared to just one, in Alabama, that Democrats expect to lose to Republicans. Recent polling of six swing states that include two of these (Arizona and North Carolina) finds popular support for additional direct payments to individuals, funds for state and local governments, and extending the $600-per-week in enhanced unemployment benefits.
But there is a substantial bloc within the Senate GOP conference who does not support those policies, even if they would help their most vulnerable colleagues electorally. Some of these opponents may actually believe, despite economic evidence to the contrary, that continuing to provide enhanced unemployment insurance benefits disincentivizes people to return to work. But more importantly, the anti-deficit rhetoric that many are using to describe their opposition suggests some number of the Republicans may be preparing for a potential Biden presidency in which obstruction of new spending, especially that benefits disadvantaged communities, is framed as fiscal restraint.
Negotiations have been made more complicated by what the White House has chosen to prioritize in negotiations. In particular, some White House priorities, like a payroll tax cut and funding for a new FBI building in downtown Washington, are not shared by Republicans in the Senate. Others, like a tax deduction for business meals, have Senate champions, but are not related to the more substantive issues at stake. While these kinds of smaller issues can be key material for trades in negotiations, focusing on them at the expense of the larger core provisions can make it more difficult to reach an ultimate deal. In addition, the White House has alternately indicated it is and is not willing to move forward without the so-called “liability shield” for businesses, which McConnell has referred to as his “red line” in the negotiations. There are certainly times in congressional bargaining where one participant will insist that something is non-negotiable merely to avoid blame for it getting rejected down the road. But, usually, members of the same political party are on the same side of those fights.
The White House been represented in the negotiations by Meadows and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. Mnuchin has bargained with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi successfully in the past, including over a deal to raise the debt limit and statutory spending caps in 2019. Meadows, on the other hand, has a history as a House member of advocating actions that hurt Republicans’ chances of keeping the majority. In 2017, for example, Meadows was one of the chief architects of an amendment to the GOP’s Obamacare repeal bill that weakened protections for people with pre-existing conditions—a provision on which many Democrats successfully ran against Republicans in the 2018 midterms.
Whether Congress and the White House can manage to revive the enhanced unemployment benefits and otherwise advocate additional, much-needed federal aid remains to be seen. But the well-being of millions of Americans depends on it.