Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows were due to meet with Democratic congressional leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer this afternoon to begin bipartisan negotiations on the next coronavirus stimulus bill. The idea was that the joint Trump administration–GOP proposal would receive a final nip, tuck, and buff at a Senate Republican luncheon earlier today, clearing the way for the crucial talks with Democrats.
It must have been an interesting encounter, since Mnuchin and Meadows left their congressional allies in a state of total disarray after days of informal intraparty discussions, according to the Washington Post:
A major intraparty rift widened between the White House and Senate Republicans on Tuesday as they stumbled to formulate a unified coronavirus budget plan, lacking agreement on policy goals, budget parameters, or even deadlines.
The Republican and White House positions changed multiple times as the day went on, with some GOP lawmakers refusing to rally behind the White House’s demand for a payroll tax cut, while others worked to convince President Trump’s emissaries that more money was needed for testing and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Trump’s stubborn demands for both an expensive, controversial payroll tax cut with little support in Congress and a very poorly timed administration pushback against funding for coronavirus-containment efforts seemed to emerge as stumbling blocks late in the process. Almost immediately, some Senate Republicans sought the obvious way out of conflicting high-dollar demands by getting rid of an arbitrary $1 trillion cap on the cost of the bill. But that freaked out some of their colleagues:
Other Republican lawmakers appeared mortified about the growing size of the spending bill, bickering over which policies to remove and warning that miscalculations could allow Democrats to seize control of the White House and Senate in November.
“What in the hell are we doing,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) asked his colleagues at the lunch with White House officials, according to several participants who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the exchange. Cruz was incensed at the push among his colleagues to boost spending levels even more.
Mnuchin, who led the White House’s side of the discussion, seem to be backpedaling a lot:
The White House did not go into the talks with a preset strategy or a list of proposals that they knew GOP lawmakers would rally behind. This miscalculation created immediate problems. Numerous demands the White House had tried to formulate over the weekend were erased within hours.
The joint congressional Democratic proposal, dubbed the Heroes Act, passed the House back on May 15. Republicans contemptuously refused even to talk about it and took their sweet time in talking to one another, drifting into a two-week-long July 4 recess knowing that many key provisions of the CARES Act would expire at the end of the month (notably supplemental federal unemployment-insurance benefits, which have gone a long way toward avoiding an economic collapse).
While it’s hard to even describe where the GOP is right now, a variety of poison-pill provisions are kicking around that could make any bipartisan deal extremely difficult. Aside from the payroll tax cut, which just may be a deal breaker, Democrats will expect a lot in exchange for accepting any version of a liability shield for corporations against coronavirus lawsuits. And the GOP’s general opposition to the state- and local-government fiscal assistance that accounts for nearly a trillion dollars in the Heroes Act is a major problem, particularly with Republicans trying instead to provide aid to school systems tied to demands that they reopen immediately.
Now Republican procrastination on stimulus talks is wreaking havoc on the timetable for wrapping this all up before Congress again leaves for a month-long August recess, as Mitch McConnell acknowledged after today’s disastrous lunch:
Add in the usual problem — that that president is prone to throwing last-minute bombs and tweeted temper tantrums into the mix at tense negotiation junctures — and you’ve got a real mess, which is unmistakably attributable to the GOP.