coronavirus stimulus

Will McConnell Really Blow Up a Trump-Blessed Stimulus Deal?

McConnell may just be bluffing. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Over the weekend, Nancy Pelosi announced that Tuesday was her deadline for reaching a COVID-19 stimulus deal with White House negotiator Steven Mnuchin. While there’s still no deal, yesterday the Speaker let it be known that enough progress has been made to let staff begin drafting language; she and the Treasury secretary will resolve final differences in the coming days. The Hill has some details:

Greasing the skids for an agreement, both sides in recent days have made concessions to the other. Mnuchin has largely accepted the Democrats’ demands for a national testing strategy, Pelosi said, including efforts to eliminate the virus’s disproportionate harm on minority communities …

Pelosi, meanwhile, suggested Tuesday that she’s willing to cede Democrats’ demands for language related to election security and propping up the U.S. census, the government’s decennial demographic survey which Trump has sought to curtail …

[T]he Speaker also suggested there’s room for compromise with Mnuchin on the liability provision, if the right worker protections are included in the package. 

Previous proposals from the two sides left them about $136 billion apart on the amount of state and local government assistance provided, which in a $2 trillion bill isn’t as big a difference as you might think. And Trump himself has waved aside the prior Republican obsession with holding down the total price tag to some arbitrary level, even saying this weekend that he wants a bigger package than Pelosi does.

But the apparent progress is being blotted out in Beltway reporting by the awful specter of Mitch McConnell giving a prospective deal a thumbs-down. Here’s the Washington Post’s report on King Mitch:

Prospects for an economic relief package in the next two weeks dimmed markedly on Tuesday after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) revealed that he has warned the White House not to strike an agreement with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi before the Nov. 3 election.

In remarks at a closed-door Senate GOP lunch, McConnell told his colleagues that Pelosi (D-Calif.) is not negotiating in good faith with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, and that any deal they reach could disrupt the Senate’s plans to confirm Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court next week. Republicans have voiced concerns that a stimulus deal could splinter the party and exacerbate divisions at a time when they are trying to rally behind the Supreme Court nominee. The comments were confirmed by three people who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss them.

You might want to break out the shaker of salt you should always have on hand when the devious Kentuckian speaks. The Senate majority leader is right in the middle of holding votes on two “messaging” bills (one a standalone small-business loan funding measure that Senate Democrats blocked yesterday, and the other a second “skinny stimulus” bill sure to meet the same fate today) designed to unite his conference and give Republicans something to campaign on if a broader deal is not reached. So what is he supposed to say about a hypothetical deal many of his members probably will vote against? “Bring it on”?

The really significant thing McConnell has said is that he will allow a vote on any deal reached by Pelosi and Mnuchin and passed by the House. He wouldn’t do that if he was determined to kill it. Subsequently, he can oppose or remain neutral on the measure even as he quietly cooperates with White House effort to round up just enough Senate Republicans to join with (presumably) all Senate Democrats and get it done. And if negotiations finally collapse, he can pose as a hero to conservatives without defying Trump at all. And the hypothesis that McConnell is willing to defy the White House on anything Trump really wants is not supported by any precedent whatsoever.

Perhaps the dumbest argument I’ve heard for McConnell blowing up a deal is that party disunity over it could spill over into the Amy Coney Barrett Supreme Court confirmation vote. Are we really supposed to believe that conservatives unhappy with big spending are going to deny speedy confirmation to the very apple of their eye, Judge Barrett?

The very real constraint on this process is time. Politico Playbook tries to game it out, and it looks difficult:

Let’s say PELOSI and MNUCHIN come to an agreement Friday – after the debate between TRUMP and BIDEN. Let’s assume it takes all weekend to get drafted, and gets released Monday. The House has a 72-hour rule, so the earliest a vote could be is next Wednesday, which is Oct. 28, or six days before Election Day. The Senate would need at least a few days to process this bill. Do you think senators will rush back to D.C. to consider this bill in the days before the election in a chamber controlled by MCCONNELL, who has urged the White House to abandon this deal and said he would consider it at “some point”? Or will they wait until after Nov. 3?

The short answer is yes, they will rush back to Washington if Trump tells McConnell to order them to do so. But there is a residual timing question: Since it’s far too late for any stimulus assistance to get to voters or affect the economy before Election Day, it’s not clear it matters if it’s formally ratified by Congress right now. Perhaps a deal that is noisily announced by Pelosi, Mnuchin, and Trump with final congressional passage and presidential signature postponed for a few weeks could provide nearly as much political value without the Senate heartburn. In theory, voters could go to the polls thinking warm thoughts about their rulers in Washington, and what they might do with that second $1,200 stimulus check.

Will McConnell Really Blow Up a Trump-Blessed Stimulus Deal?