Everyone agrees that Congress needs to take action to buffer the public-health and economic shocks that the coronavirus will bring to the US. So far, that’s almost all they do agree on, however. Despite hopes that a House Democrat bill would incorporate enough Republican proposals to win easy approval later today, the bill has instead surprised even some Democrats with its more insular and rushed approach:
Democrats unveiled a multi-billion-dollar emergency proposal close to midnight Wednesday, focused on guaranteeing aid programs like food assistance, unemployment insurance and temporary sick leave. It would also make free coronavirus testing widely available in a bid to address one of the nation’s major struggles in containing the outbreak.
Senior Democrats had initially been hopeful — some, even confident — that it would win support from Republicans. By Thursday morning, however, GOP and White House officials suggested they would not support Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s plan as drafted. Several sources said Republicans had concerns with the specifics of the Democrats’ paid leave plan, as well as some other provisions. …
The sweeping package — crafted in about 72 hours by a handful of Democratic chairmen — took even some Democrats by surprise.
Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Col.) told Democratic chairmen at a middle-of-the-night meeting of the House Rules Committee that he didn’t understand why the vote couldn’t be slowed down slightly for all members to digest the package.
“This is about as far from regular order” as Congress gets, Perlmutter said early Thursday morning, challenging House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone.
This morning, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy announced GOP opposition to the bill, although he remained hopeful that a deal could get worked out. The main problem with this bill is that it’s being used as a vehicle for permanent changes to employee-leave policies that have long been Democratic hobby horses, rather than temporary measures with sunset provisions for dealing with the crisis at hand. It also ties up the Social Security Administration in managing those changes, McCarthy argues, at a time when their resources are more urgently needed elsewhere:
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy says the Pelosi bill to battle the coronavirus “comes up short.”
— ABC News (@ABC) March 12, 2020
At first, Nancy Pelosi seemed to signal that negotiations were over. After McCarthy spoke, however, Pelosi sounded more open to changes. She called Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin’s requests for changes “reasonable,” and noted that Mitch McConnell had pressed her to work with Mnuchin more. The House needs to move quickly, Pelosi said, so negotiating time will be short:
NEW: Speaker Nancy Pelosi tells @ABC News that changes made by Republicans and suggestions made by Treasury Sec. Mnuchin to the coronavirus bill are “all very reasonable and none of them” would “prevent us from moving forward with the bill.” https://t.co/x0KVtNjUo2 pic.twitter.com/FEUKqcXElh
— ABC News (@ABC) March 12, 2020
Pelosi wouldn’t commit to whether she would keep the House in session after this week, saying that the Capitol physician would have to weigh in on that decision. McConnell remarked on the Senate floor that the Senate would continue to operate, even though the physician has recommended that the building be closed to the public:
“Congress will continue to do our work. Offices will be able to welcome constituents and visitors for meetings and official business by appointment,” McConnell said from the Senate floor.
“But in deference to the experts, and to protect the health of the many Americans who travel to our nation’s capital, tourism and nonofficial access to the Capitol and the complex will be put on pause,” he added.
McConnell’s comments come after new restrictions were issued for visiting the Capitol complex. In addition to suspending Capitol tours, access to the Capitol and House and Senate Office buildings “will be limited to members, staff, credentialed press and official business visitors.”
“Their decision was made in close consultation with the Attending Physician of the United States Congress, Dr. Brian Monahan. I fully support the decision of these nonpartisan officers,” McConnell added.
Prediction: No one will be going anywhere without an agreement on an emergency-response package. An attempt to force the Senate to pass the current bill by defaulting on it will backfire on Pelosi and House Democrats, especially given the rush to push the bill after its release. The sooner they can pass a bipartisan bill, the sooner this becomes the White House’s problem — and the longer it stalls over partisan food fights, the longer Trump can blame it on Pelosi.
Expect the final version to reduce division by addition, offering spending for both sides’ priorities rather than trying to narrow down the bill to essentials. It’s not the time to drag out a fight, especially since the crisis has little to do with partisan hobby horses anyway.
Update: This seems very, very dumb:
McConnell ally says Senate won’t take up House #coronavirus bill until after recess. “The Senate will act when we come back and we have a clearer idea of what extra steps we need to take,” Sen. Lamar Alexander told reporters.
— Ana Cabrera (@AnaCabrera) March 12, 2020
That’s a good reason to cancel the recess, not to put off taking action in a crisis. I’d guess this has the same expiration date as Pelosi’s take-it-or-leave-it approach.
Update: Regardless of what Alexander’s smoking at the moment, other voices in the GOP caucus are calling to cancel recess and stay at work:
Our nation’s leaders must cast aside partisan politics and put the health of our country first. Congress needs to cancel its recess and stay in session so we can work together in a bipartisan fashion to address the coronavirus pandemic.
— Senator Thom Tillis (@SenThomTillis) March 12, 2020
Nebraska’s Ben Sasse issued a statement earlier demanding more work on the crisis, not delays for vacation:
“Nursing home operators in Nebraska are telling me they’re worried because they have patients who might have coronavirus, but they don’t have enough testing kits to find out. Instead of going into recess next week, the Senate ought to keep working on the people’s business — both addressing the obvious deficiencies in our diagnostic testing pipeline, and debating the President’s call last night for economic legislation. The Senate has work to do, let’s get to it.”