coronavirus stimulus

As Congressional Action on Stimulus Fails, Trump May Have an Opportunity to Play President

Trump might be tempted to triangulate against his own stubborn congressional allies. Photo: Pool/Getty Images

Today the idiotic saga of Mitch McConnell’s “skinny stimulus” bill came to an end as an effort to get it to the floor was predictably defeated on a party-line vote, with only Rand Paul breaking ranks. This much-discussed exercise was always irrelevant to any actual legislation, and is very likely to represent an implicit bipartisan decision to do nothing on pandemic relief and stimulus until after the November elections, as the Washington Post suggests in looking at the wreckage of past negotiations:

Democratic leaders and top White House officials met in July and parts of August to try to reach an agreement on a new economic-relief package, concerned about the impact of expiring unemployment benefits, small business aid and eviction protections. But those negotiations faltered as both sides dug in, and sporadic efforts to revive them have failed….

The only negotiations happening are on a stand-alone spending bill known as a continuing resolution, or CR, to keep the government from shutting down in October. The White House and Democrats have signaled a willingness to pass such a measure quickly before heading home to campaign for reelection, although they have yet to reach agreement on how long it should last.

After that last-ditch pressure point passes, there’s really no reason for either side to pretend a stimulus deal is in the works:

“I think both parties want to get out of here and campaign,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) said. “The CR is the next order of big business to do and the cleaner the better, the quicker.”

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said, “My guess would be that if we leave in September with a CR we will not come back to do anything before the election.”

If that’s where we are, at least one CARES Act beneficiary, the airline industry, will lose payroll subsidies as of September 30, and other businesses and needy individuals expecting a second stimulus bill will be out of luck for a considerable stretch of time during a fragile economic recovery. As the Post reports, this could create another window for executive action, though the legal validity and economic impact of Trump’s earlier stimulus steps are still in considerable doubt:

In August, Trump signed four executive actions meant to provide more unemployment aid, eviction protections, student loan relief and to defer payroll tax payments. The moves have had mixed success and came as political talks faltered on Capitol Hill….

[The congressional] impasse has prompted top White House officials to consider a new round of executive actions that they hope could direct funding to certain groups amid fears that the nascent economic recovery could fail to gain momentum.

White House officials have discussed efforts to unilaterally provide support for the flagging airline industry while also bolstering unemployment benefits, according to two people aware of the deliberations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share internal policy discussions. The White House has also discussed moving without Congress to direct more money for school vouchers and changing President Trump’s recent payroll tax changes to make it more effective.

Last week Trump aired the possibility of an even more dramatic prospect: using unobligated Federal Reserve loan authority created by the CARES Act to finance a second round of $1200 direct stimulus checks, as Fox Business reported:

President Trump called on Congress to approve a fresh round of $1,200 stimulus checks for American families by reallocating $300 billion in unused coronavirus relief funds.

“We have $300 billion in an account that we didn’t use. I would be willing to release it, subject to Congress, and use that as stimulus money and it would go right to the American people,” Trump said Friday during a White House press briefing.

Although Trump said he considered redirecting the funds unilaterally, he was told he needed Congress’ approval.

These are the same unobligated funds Senate Republicans redeployed in their “skinny stimulus” bill to hold down the price tag to a level acceptable to their own fiscal hard-liners.

Since Congress is unlikely to set aside its own intraparty and inter-party disputes over the size and composition of a stimulus package to cut a small deal over stimulus checks, it wouldn’t be surprising if Trump’s lawyers are trying to figure out some way for him to authorize the checks without Congress after all. It would obviously be a valuable pre-election gesture to the roughly 160 million Americans who might benefit.

Alternatively, an embattled Trump on the brink of likely defeat might be tempted to toss his tight-fisted congressional allies over the side and cut a deal with Democrats on something closer to Nancy Pelosi’s bottom line of around $2 trillion, including a second stimulus check and many other goodies. After all, Democrats control the House, and it wouldn’t take that many Senate Republicans to pass a bill with united Democratic support. Such an act of triangulation against his own party would be entirely out of character, but from a cynical point of view, it might be a way — and the only way — for many congressional Republicans to have their cake and vote against it, too.

Trump May Actually Have an Opportunity to Play President