The COVID-19 pandemic has now sickened over 1,000 Americans, shuttered major sports leagues, and crashed global markets. On Thursday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average plummeted nearly 9 percent, putting the index on track for its worst decline since 1987. Meanwhile, the National Basketball Association suspended its season, and preeminent economists argued that the United States has already entered a recession.
In response to this mounting crisis, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called on Congress to waste no time in commencing its previously planned vacation.
Earlier in the day, House Democrats had presented their plan for mitigating the economic and epidemiological consequences of the coronavirus outbreak. Nancy Pelosi’s package included a $2 billion increase in funding for state unemployment insurance programs, more than $1 billion in nutritional assistance, a paid-leave benefit for workers sidelined by the virus, and an increase in federal Medicaid outlays that would enable free coronavirus testing for all America’s uninsured.
House Democrats, House Republicans, and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin are still negotiating over Pelosi’s bill, and the House Speaker has indicated that they are close to a compromise.
But McConnell insisted that the Senate would not pass any legislation addressing the coronavirus emergency until it took a seven-day breather.
“The Senate will act when we come back and we have a clearer idea of what extra steps we need to take,” Republican Senator Lamar Alexander told reporters Thursday, explaining McConnell’s position.
Hours later, however, McConnell changed course. After calls from multiple Senate Republicans to cancel the impending recess, the Senate Majority Leader announced that his caucus would work through next week on compromise legislation.
Given investors’ avowed desire for a policy response — and Donald Trump’s abiding concern for the well-being of the stock market — it always seemed more likely than not that McConnell’s purported plan to tackle coronavirus after recess was a negotiating tactic. The Senate Majority Leader might have felt that the threat of a full week of inaction would be sufficient to force Democrats to cave on increasing Medicaid funding, or requiring employers to foot the bill for paid leave. But even as a bluff, McConnell’s stance was insane. It’s hard to imagine a more politically toxic talking point than, “Democrats may want to take immediate action on this public health emergency, but the Republican Party believes it is entitled to a weeklong break before tackling such a demanding project.” And anyhow, it’s unclear why threatening a delay would give Republicans leverage; as the party in control of the White House, the GOP has far more to lose politically from a deepening economic and epidemiological crisis than Nancy Pelosi’s caucus does. Evidently, McConnell now understands this.