Mitch McConnell is playing the weakest hand of his career and Dems need to call his bluff

Mitch McConnell is playing the weakest hand of his career and Dems need to call his bluff
Gage Skidmore

Politico reports that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is "dangling" giving much needed aid to cash-strapped state governments in exchange for limiting "the liabilities of health care workers, business owners and employees from lawsuits as they reopen in the coming weeks and months." (You can read that as "business owners," with healthcare workers and employees serving as cover.) This is, according to the report, in keeping with "his reputation for tough tactics."

But it is difficult to overstate what a weak hand McConnell is playing. On the substance, his co-partisans in Texas, Kansas, Georgia and elsewhere are pushing to re-open businesses with insufficient testing and contact-tracing against the advice of public health experts. The potential liability for companies that go along with those efforts are massive.

The GOP also has unified control over 21 states, and the Democrats enjoy governing "trifectas" in just 15. Republicans hold more governorships as well--26 to the Dems' 24. McConnell has framed any aid as a "blue state bailout," but that spin isn't going to gain any traction outside the Fox News bubble.

He's holding an equally weak hand politically.  State and local governments "employ 13 percent of the U.S. workforce, making them a significant economic sector," according to The Washington Post, and economists warn that letting them go bankrupt would likely tilt the economy into another Great Depression. Historically, the party that holds the White House has always taken the lion's share of blame for economic downturns.

Because of all of those factors, his caucus is divided. Republican governors have called out McConnell for saying he'd prefer to let states go bankrupt, and a number of Republican senators  have reportedly signaled that they too are in favor of a big aid package to the states. The Democratic caucus is unified on all of the issues that are currently being negotiated, according to media reports.

So Democrats need to call his bluff. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said earlier this month that he would demand voting-by-mail in the next stimulus package. That should be non-negotiable.

They should be willing to give McConnell some liability protection for companies in exchange for mandatory paid medical leave for their workers who become ill. They must reject the framing that aid to state governments, disproportionately run by Republicans, is somehow a concession to Democrats. Money to build-out testing and contact-tracing capacity amid a historic infectious disease outbreak should also be positioned as a bipartisan no-brainer and not something that Democrats want.

Some will always be unsatisfied at the outcome of these negotiations, but if Dems were to get paid medical leave, safe voting-by-mail, aid to states whose budgets are being decimated by the pandemic and a beefed-up national disease surveillance program in place, it would reflect a serious approach to this crisis. They have McConnell over a barrel, and they may not enjoy more leverage going forward than they have right now.


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