Politics

McConnell sets stage for showdown stimulus vote

Ahead of the Senate’s return Tuesday from its August recess, McConnell announced plans to unveil the new GOP bill and take the procedural steps needed to set up a vote “as soon as this week.” Moving quickly to set up a vote could avoid a repeat of the intraparty squabbling that dominated the July session when Republicans bickered for days before the GOP leader ultimately introduced a $1 trillion Republican plan that never came to the floor for a vote.

But with the coronavirus pandemic and the impact on the economy still dominating the concerns of voters, McConnell and GOP senators have spent the month of August in private discussions trying to find unity behind a plan roughly half the size of their last proposal. Yet there are still several members threatening to vote against the emerging proposal as they push GOP leaders to include their ideas into the plan.

“I will be moving immediately today to set up a floor vote as soon as this week,” McConnell said in a Tuesday statement. The Senate is expected to hold the procedural vote on Thursday, according to a GOP leadership aide.

The move amounts to a gamble for the Senate GOP leader, given that Republicans privately concede they are still short of the 51 votes they are seeking in order to bolster their election-year argument against the Democrats, who pushed a $3 trillion-plus plan through the House in May.

If McConnell’s new measure falls short of 51 votes, it is bound to feed Democratic attacks that the GOP remains in disarray over new economic relief measures with millions out of work and just weeks ahead of a hugely consequential election with control of the Senate at stake.

But even if the bill wins over 51 GOP senators, it will still fall far short of the 60 votes needed to break a Democratic filibuster, meaning the impasse over a new round of stimulus will persist amid months of bitter partisan bickering.

“It does not contain every idea our party likes,” McConnell said of the new plan. “I am confident Democrats will feel the same. Yet Republicans believe the many serious differences between our two parties should not stand in the way of agreeing where we can agree and making law that helps our nation.”

What’s in the bill?

The bill includes aid for schools, the US Postal Service and small businesses, including the Paycheck Protection Program. The draft bill provides an extension of the small business loan program to the tune of $257.7 billion. Loans will max out at $2 million and the bill makes it easier to forgive loans under $150,000.

The bill also includes an extension of jobless benefits at $300 a week, down from the $600 in weekly benefits that expired in July. This bill would extend benefits until December 27.

The bill is intended to help the Postal Service’s cash crunch by forgiving a $10 billion loan to the USPS under the March CARES Act, the more $2 trillion relief package passed earlier this year. The USPS would have to meet certain criteria to have the loan forgiven. Republicans argue that this “mirrors” what the Democratic leaders proposed to the White House in their recent negotiations, according to a GOP summary of the bill.
The legislation also includes two years of tax credits for parents to cover costs of private and home schooling, a controversial school choice proposal mirrored off of a plan proposed by Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Tim Scott of South Carolina and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. Cruz had pushed for permanent tax credits for this program, but the GOP bill provides for two years of tax credits.

The bill would also authorize actions needed to “surge capacity” to produce vaccines and therapeutics for Covid-19, according to the GOP summary.

The text also includes long-sought liability protections proposed by McConnell to limit lawsuits against businesses, universities, hospitals, and health care workers in their response to the pandemic.

The bill would increase the amount of charitable contributions that individuals can take. The bill would provide $105 billion for schools and programs to get schools up and running, $16 billion for testing and contact tracing, $31 billion for vaccine, therapeutic and diagnostic development, $20 billion for farm assistance, $5 billion for child care providers to help working parents have access to childcare, and $500 million in federal assistance to fisheries.

The bill would be paid for, in part, by unspent money in the existing CARES law.

What happens next?

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has called the plan “emaciated,” and has joined House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s call to back at least $2.2 trillion for a new stimulus, a price tag the White House and McConnell have rejected.

“Republicans appear dead-set on another bill which doesn’t come close to addressing the problems and is headed nowhere,” Schumer and Pelosi said in a joint statement released Tuesday. “If anyone doubts McConnell’s true intent is anything but political, just look at the bill. This proposal is laden with poison pills Republicans know Democrats would never support. “

The White House is keenly interested in trying to secure the necessary votes as well. Over the weekend, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows spoke with GOP senators by phone to hear out their concerns, sources said. And some pushed their preferred ideas, including Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican who wants the plan to include refundable tax credits for parents who homeschool their children, according to a person familiar with the matter.

But once the GOP bill stalls, it’s an open question whether any of the proposals will be added to a government funding bill to keep federal agencies open past this month. Both Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin are trying to keep the measure “clean” — or free of extraneous proposals — but they are bound to face pressure to add more economic relief to what could be the final bill signed into law before the November elections.

This story has been updated with additional developments Tuesday.

CNN’s Ted Barrett contributed to this report.

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