How Democrats turned the tables in the funding fight as the GOP falls to pieces

How Democrats turned the tables in the funding fight as the GOP falls to pieces
AFGE members and AFGE National President Cox join Speaker Pelosi and Senator Schumer at the Capitol to discuss the partial government shutdown and impact on federal workers. AFGE

Since the Tea Party wave of 2010, Congress has for the most part only been able to pass major spending bills through brinkmanship. Only as the government has careened toward an imminent shutdown or debt default have the two parties been able to work out last-minute deals to avert disaster.

Republicans have long enjoyed a couple of structural advantages in these gunpoint negotiations. First, they've shown a willingness to burn it all down, regardless of how painful that might be. Donald Trump's record-breaking, five-week government shutdown, for example, cost the US $11 billion in decreased economic output before he finally backed down, according to the Congressional Budget Office. He did that, at Christmastime, in a fit of pique over Congress's refusal to give him half that much money for his silly border wall.

And, as a party that's generally opposed to government on ideological grounds and has insulated itself from democratic accountability through gerrymandering and a long campaign to capture the courts, the GOP benefits in the long run from perceived dysfunction in Washington DC even if it takes the blame for the fallout of these kinds of standoffs in the short-term, as has mostly been the case since they abandoned the normal legislative process.

As a result, Democrats have all-too-often made frustrating concessions to keep the federal government operating or maintain benefits that are vital for struggling families--or simply because they were skittish about the heat they might take from both Fox News and the punditocracy if they were seen to be "obstructionists."

But this time, a week after the expiration of enhanced unemployment benefits that kept 25 million people who were left jobless by the Covid-19 catastrophe afloat, the shoe is on the other foot. The severity of the crisis and GOP infighting have put Democrats in the catbird seat and they are, at least so far, unashamedly using their ample leverage in these negotiations. Republicans are not taking it well.

Trump is trailing in the polls and the GOP's Senate firewall is looking increasingly shaky. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) has said that 15-20 members of his caucus probably won't vote for any relief bill, meaning that he may need a couple of dozen Democratic votes to get something passed. Mark Meadows, the White House Chief-of-Staff and former leader of the tea-party-inspired House Freedom Caucus, has a lot of experience blowing bipartisan deals up but has never ushered one through, and his messaging has often been at odds with that of his White House counterpart, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.

Meanwhile, Trump has demanded provisions that were non-starters among Republicans--including a bunch of money for a new FBI headquarters building and White House renovations--and undermined two "red-lines" Senate Republicans attempted to draw by suggesting that he'd be open to extending enhanced unemployment benefits without reducing them from $600 per week, and that not getting broad civil liability protections for corporations wouldn't necessarily be a deal-breaker.

All of this, amid a historic catastrophe, has stiffened Democratic spines. "Frustrated Senate Republicans re-upped their complaints Tuesday that Democratic negotiators are taking too hard a line in talks on a sweeping coronavirus relief bill," according to the AP. “I would characterize concessions made by Secretary Mnuchin and the administration as being far more substantial than the concessions that had been made by the Democrat negotiators,” Meadows said. White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany indignantly claimed that Democrats had turned down four separate offers from the GOP.

According to reports, the only concession that Democrats have agreed to so far is reducing their ask for supplemental funding for the Postal Service from $25 billion to $10 billion. Meanwhile, Politico's Jake Sherman reports that Republicans have increased their offer to extend the unemployment payments until the end of the year at $400, but Democrats believe they'll win that fight and balked at the reduction. After demagoguing aid to cash-strapped state and local governments as a "blue state bailout," the GOP has offered $150 billion to give them some relief. And they've offered to extend a moratorium on evictions in federally-backed housing until mid-December. This week, Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Pat Roberts (R-KS) also said that Republicans could give on a significant increase in funding for food stamps, another key Democratic priority.

And, after punting in earlier bills, Democrats appear to be making money to help states secure the November elections a redline of their own. The two sides remain far apart on a number of other measures, including supplemental funding for schools, renters' assistance and testing, and making pensions whole, according to Sherman.

As Trump and the GOP find themselves generally on the wrong side of public opinion for their catastrophic response to the pandemic three months before the election, the White House is now floating the possibility of trying to bypass Congress with a series of executive actions to provide relief without acquiescing to Democratic leaders in a bid to increase their leverage in the negotiations. But, setting aside the dubious legality of what they're proposing, the problem is that what they're contemplating--extending enhanced unemployment benefits using funds left over from previous relief bills, extending the moratorium on evictions and not collecting payroll taxes for a period--are just too small-bore given the scope of the interlocking crises we face.

After not buckling when those enhanced unemployment benefits expired, it looks like Democrats are going to continue to take a tough posture. We'll see how that plays out. Both sides have said that they want to finalize a deal by Friday so Congress can vote on it early next week.

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