Senate Republicans are being mugged by reality

Senate Republicans are being mugged by reality
Image via Screengrab.

Here's some harsh reality. In three days, 25 million Americans will lose the enhanced unemployment benefits that have been keeping them afloat. Even though tens of millions are out of work, The Financial Times reports that job openings are still 20 percent below normal. As many as 40 million may face eviction in the coming months.

All 50 states have begun re-opening despite the fact that we still have far less testing and contact-tracing capacity than experts say we need to do so safely. The US has gone from 2.59 million confirmed cases of Covid-19 to 4.3 million in just the past 30 days--a 66 percent increase.

And the Senate is at least theoretically headed for its August recess, some ten weeks after House Democrats passed a $3 trillion relief bill that would extend those unemployment benefits and provide "nearly $1 trillion for state, local and tribal governments; another round of direct payments to individuals...; $200 billion for hazard pay for essential workers; $75 billion for coronavirus testing and tracing; increased spending on food stamps; $175 billion in housing support; student loan forgiveness; and a new employee retention tax credit," according to The Washington Post's summary.

Meanwhile, over at the GOP-controlled Senate, the so-called "greatest deliberative body in the world," Republicans are in utter disarray. On Monday, they agreed to and then immediately distanced themselves from a White House-supported bill that included money for F-35 fighter jets and a new headquarters for the FBI. It would cut supplemental unemployment benefits by two-thirds, give nothing to cash-strapped state and local governments and offer a pittance to build out testing and contact-tracing capacity.

And to top it off, a whole bunch of Republicans say they won't vote for any big relief bill.

Amid all of this human suffering, Politico reports that Senate Republicans are demonstrating why electing people who hate the government to run it is like going to a mechanic who hates cars to get your transmission fixed as Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) finds himself caught between a rock and a hard place.

Republican divisions have already forced McConnell to delay the unveiling of the $1 trillion proposal he released on Monday, an embarrassing setback for the party at a critical moment. McConnell has also openly said the plan would have “fairly significant support” among Senate Republicans but “probably not everyone” — which is as close to a tell as McConnell gets to admitting his cards aren’t very strong.

And then there’s Donald Trump and White House officials, who seem more concerned with saving the president’s political career than they are about preserving GOP control of the Senate. For Republicans, working with the White House to craft a unified position hasn’t always been easy these past few weeks; Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows have repeatedly altered some of their demands during closed-door discussions with McConnell and other top Republicans during that period, or staked out positions they know Senate GOP leaders can't support, according to sources familiar with the talks...

With Mnuchin leading coronavirus negotiations for the White House earlier in the year, McConnell was able to eventually help craft two major deals with Schumer and Pelosi that pumped more than $2 trillion into the U.S. economy.

But now McConnell faces deficit fatigue among many Senate Republicans, who have seen the U.S. national debt total skyrocket to more than $26 trillion. The annual deficit will exceed $3 trillion, stunning the GOP.

“Simply shoveling cash from Washington is not going to solve the problem. And right now, all the Democrats and too many Republicans are contemplating doing just that,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). “Massive spending and pork and ballooning deficits and debt are bipartisan problems.”

As more Republicans peel off, McConnell’s negotiating hand is significantly weakened heading into high-stakes negotiations with Democrats. Even if all 53 Republicans were united, McConnell would still need Democratic support in order to reach the 60-vote threshold. This time, though, McConnell will start off with far less support on his side.

“At the end of the day, [McConnell] has to accept the reality that probably half of our members in the Senate won’t vote for it no matter what’s in it,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who was deeply involved in talks with the White House over the spending portion of the GOP proposal.

In theory, Democrats have McConnell and Trump over a barrel. Trump's re-election prospects look dim and McConnell's majority is in peril, and if they don't pass a relief bill, the economy is going to really crash just months before the election.

But they have two structural advantages. First, Trump is sequestered in the conservative media bubble and doesn't behave rationally, according to his own political interests. More importantly, Democrats are eager to provide relief while many Republicans who aren't facing competitive races would be content to pull in the safety line millions of households are relying on to get by. The longer the GOP holds out, the more willing Senate Dems will be to make steep concessions to get something passed.

We'll see how it shakes out. What's clear at present is that Senate Republicans are heavily invested in the idea that they can wish away a historic crisis and compel people to return to jobs that no longer exist. And those beliefs are running headlong into a hard wall of reality during this historic crisis.

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