As coronavirus rolls on, Republicans hit 'pause' on new aid

AP , Thursday 14 May 2020

Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC) speaks with reporters about the Republican led immigration reform effort
Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC) speaks with reporters about the Republican led immigration reform effort on U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., June 21, 2018. (Reuters)

Businesses are going belly up, tens of millions have been laid off and, by some measures, the U.S. seems headed for another Great Depression. But Republicans surveying the wreckage aren't ready for another round of coronavirus aid, instead urging a ``pause.''

It's a position based on a confluence of factors. Polls show GOP voters think the government is already doing enough. Republicans on Capitol Hill are divided over the best approach. Billions approved by Congress have yet to be spent. And it's also unclear what President Donald Trump wants to do next, if anything, to juice the economy _ his payroll tax cut idea hasn't gained any traction on Capitol Hill.

For these and other reasons, GOP leaders see an unfolding crisis that does not yet cry out for further action.

``There's just a pragmatic piece to this, which is, if we're going to do another bill, let's get into June and July so we know how people are re-emerging,'' said Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., who gave up his leadership post last year to take the top GOP job on the Financial Services Committee.

The political balancing act comes as the long-dormant deficit-hawk wing of the GOP lumbers back to life, recoiling from the House Democratic proposal to spend another $3 trillion in taxpayer money. Yet many Republicans concede there is risk to standing pat at a time of massive unemployment, financial struggles for local governments and growing COVID-19 caseloads, particularly with the November election fast approaching.

Despite their distaste for further negotiations with Democrats, many Republicans privately see passage of another coronavirus measure as inevitable.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a proponent of the ``pause,'' said Tuesday that Republicans are ``taking a look at what we've already done. And we've added about $3 trillion to the national debt, and assessing the effectiveness of that before deciding to go forward.''

Yet McConnell also cracked open the door, cautiously, to more legislation, provided that it is ``narrowly targeted.''

``I'm in discussion, we all are, with the administration. If we reach a decision along with the administration to move to another phase, that'll be the time to interact with the Democrats,'' he said.

Still, recent polls show GOP voters are far more likely to be satisfied with the government's virus response than Democrats. They are less fearful of a second wave of cases as states loosen stay-at-home orders, and they are not clamoring for more aid.

``We're starting to hear grumbling against spending that I haven't heard for a while,'' said Adam Brandon, president of FreedomWorks, a conservative group that has helped promote demonstrations around the country demanding a relaxation of state lockdown orders.

On Capitol Hill, the question of what to do next is sowing GOP division.

Conservative senators from solidly red states argue that Washington has done enough, and they have been squaring off in meetings with GOP moderates and pragmatists siding with Democrats. The moderates are supportive of fiscal relief for states and local governments, help for the Postal Service, additional jobless aid, and further provisions on testing and tracing for the virus, which has already claimed more than 80,000 lives in the U.S.

The conservative senators have influence with Trump, but he doesn't share their fiscal instincts.

The president and deputies like Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have signaled a willingness to deliver aid to state and local governments _ funding that is a core demand of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. And Trump at one point even floated a massive debt-financed effort on infrastructure, leaving many conservatives aghast.

Trump himself has cautioned Republicans against drawing a red line against state and local aid. The president is talking to governors, noted a top House GOP leadership aide who requested anonymity to describe private conversations. The aide emphasized that the president remains extremely popular in most Republican congressional districts and still gives members a lot of cover by going along with him.

``As states begin to reopen we need to wait and see where and what the need is, but the policy process is ongoing at the White House,'' said a White House aide, requesting anonymity to describe internal dynamics. ``The president has said more help is coming.''

Many think the next coronavirus bill, when it passes, will be the last one for a while, with Congress likely to maintain an intermittent schedule as the election nears.

``I don't see us coming back before the election so I'd rather us get this smart and right rather than shoveling more coal into the fire, and people saying we'll come back and do more,'' McHenry said.

But it's clear that Republicans are dreading another round of negotiations with Democrats.

While each of the four prior COVID-19 response measures passed by almost unanimous votes, the outcome required GOP leaders to accept significant legislative victories for Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. They fear another episode in which Mnuchin, a former Democrat, gives them even more.

For now, negotiations are in neutral. The Senate is poised to push off the legislative debate until after the Memorial Day break, when Republicans hope the virus will finally begin to ease.

``We will be working in a bipartisan way and with the White House to make sure ... we're addressing the very serious needs of the American people when it becomes both to the health emergency and the economic emergency that they're experiencing right now,'' said No. 2 Senate Republican John Thune of South Dakota.

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