Most members of Congress have gone home for the weekend knowing that two crucial provisions of the CARES Act they enacted in March — a $600 per week federal unemployment insurance supplement and a moratorium on evictions in millions of federal-assisted rental properties — were expiring (the eviction moratorium actually expired on July 25). This is happening during a week of alarming economic news.
When White House negotiators Steven Mnuchin and Mark Meadows met with Democratic congressional leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer last night, they were clearly eager to cut a short-term stimulus deal to address the expiring provisions, so much so that (according to Politico) they offered a four-month extension of the $600 unemployment benefit that most congressional Republicans have been denouncing as right out of the Marx-Engels playbook. The Democrats flatly refused, repeating their original demand for an extension through the first quarter of 2021.
This is a good illustration of the whip hand that Democrats believe they hold in the stalled stimulus negotiations, and of the irrelevance, at this moment, of congressional Republicans. Team Trump’s eagerness to cut a deal with Pelosi and Schumer extends beyond the expiring CARES Act provisions to one of the big, contentious issues in the larger stimulus discussions, as the Washington Post reported:
The White House is willing to cut a deal with Democrats that leaves out Senate Republican legislation aimed at protecting employers, hospitals and schools from coronavirus-related lawsuits, according to two people with knowledge of internal White House planning.
The White House wants and is pushing for the “liability shield” as a top priority but would be willing to sign off on a deal that lacks the legal protections, those people said.
This public signal represents a sharp back of the hand to Mitch McConnell, who has all but said he’d leap off the roof of the Capitol before giving up his liability shield, corporate America’s central demand in the stimulus talks.
One final example of the powerful position the Democratic leaders have at this particular moment comes from the Politico account of the talks:
THE DEBATE OVER MONEY FOR STATE AND LOCAL GOVERNMENTS was contentious. Democrats signaled they would need another $15 billion on top of the roughly $900 billion they requested – this time, to help public transportation systems. SCHUMER discussed repealing SALT caps, which Republicans oppose.
The two parties in Congress were already a thousand miles apart on the subject of fiscal assistance to state and local governments. The fact that Democrats are now demanding more money in this area is a good indicator that they are not in the mood for any hasty compromises.
But it’s the SALT reference that really shows some Democratic chutzpah. The cap on state and local tax exemptions to which Schumer reportedly alluded was a much-prized Republican accomplishment in the 2017 Trump tax bill, limiting what conservatives have always regarded as a disgusting subsidy to tax hikes in liberal enclaves. Worse yet, SALT benefits mostly the kind of wealthy coastal elites MAGA folk hate. For the Speaker of the House from California and the Senate Minority Leader from New York, this is basically a constituent-services issue that they are tossing into the stew. It’s also quite possibly a calculated insult to Mnuchin, the administration’s tax policy chief.
What’s behind all this bravado? It’s very likely the understanding that Republicans, who are on the defensive on every electoral front, have more to lose from stimulus gridlock they they do, and that the biggest loser of all if the economy continues to go south is Donald J. Trump. Meanwhile, the path to a deal for White House negotiators is much shorter via Democrats than via Trump’s own partisans. A deal with Democrats guarantees House passage, and enough support from Democratic senators to bring Senate passage into sight with some arm-twisting (particularly among vulnerable Republican senators up for reelection this year). Further talks with congressional Republicans will simply make the ultimate deal more distant, particularly since McConnell concedes that as many as 20 of his troops will vote against absolutely anything.
The irrelevance of congressional Republicans is being obscured right now by frantic activity as GOP senators seek floor votes on the supplemental unemployment insurance benefit compromises that they know Democrats will block, as the Hill reports:
[A proposal] from Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Mike Braun (R-Ind.), would provide, when combined with state unemployment, a two-thirds match to an individual’s previous wage, with a $500 per week cap on the federal benefit. If a state could not implement the wage-based figure, they would get a $200 per week flat federal benefit …
Absent a breakthrough, Republicans say the vote [on the Johnson-Braun proposal] will at least let them get Democrats on the record after days of watching the bipartisan talks go nowhere and mounting frustration on Capitol Hill.
Just as important, it gives them something to do as White House negotiators betray them.
What complicates any White House–Pelosi–Schumer deal, of course, is the nature of the president who will have to sign any legislation. Yes, Trump desperately needs more stimulus for the economy, and some positive action with which he can be identified as he drifts toward what is looking like a sound defeat in November. But any bipartisan deal on coronavirus stimulus would be the first major bipartisan deal of his presidency. Is he really going to betray his staunchest congressional supporters, the House Freedom Caucus types, with one of their former leaders, Mark Meadows, doing the back-stabbing? Perhaps, if it means saving his presidency. But Pelosi and Schumer should enjoy their moment of extreme leverage, because with this president, you never know what’s next.