Republicans and White House divided on stimulus proposal: ‘I’m not a no, I’m a hell no’

With fewer than three weeks to go until the August recess — and with the virus still ravaging many corners of the country — Tuesday’s negotiations marked little progress, and instead evolved into a day of venting sessions for rank-and-file members, each with his or her own idea of how to tackle the next chapter of spending. It all comes just days before a $600 federal enhancement to unemployment insurance is set to expire.

“Everyone has their own idea,” Sen. Kevin Cramer, a North Dakota Republican, as he emerged from a closed-door conference meeting.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, is pressing for Republicans to coalesce around a proposal that would serve as a starting point for negotiations with congressional Democrats, who already passed a $3 trillion measure in May. He told reporters Tuesday the proposal that he is pushing “enjoys fairly significant support among Republican senators.” But he acknowledged, “not everyone.”

McConnell, in a floor speech earlier in the day, outlined key components expected to be in the GOP plan, including $105 billion for schools, a second round of targeted funding for the forgivable small business loan program, another round of direct payments and liability protections for businesses, hospitals, health care workers and schools. It’s a proposal a large portion of the Republican conference is eager to get behind, but several key components remain under discussion with the White House.

The issues, which had been building for a better part of a day as Republican senators raised concerns, questions or outright opposition to key White House tenets, were laid bare in a closed-door lunch Tuesday attended by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows.

“A lot of people had a lot to get off their chest,” one Republican senator told CNN. Several senators spoke up against the efficacy of the payroll tax, the senator said. Others railed against the overall path toward another significant spending package altogether.

Multiple Republicans, according to a person in the room, raised the issue of the tax cut being too expensive and taking too long to implement at a time when the country is in need of a quick boost to the economy.

“Maybe three people raised it and they were all saying the same thing: maybe this isn’t necessary,” the person said of GOP senators raising objections.

Meadows said that administration officials viewed the lunch as more of a listening session and described it as “more just, the senators talking and expressing frustrations with perhaps where things are.”

Republicans still plan to introduce their proposal this week, and McConnell made clear a sense of urgency remains with millions out of work and the virus still plaguing parts of the country.

“The American jobs market needs another shot of adrenaline,” McConnell said.

But as Republicans work through what will end up in the GOP proposal, some senators are already lining up against whatever McConnell introduces.

“At lunch today I asked my Republican colleagues, ‘What in the hell are we doing?'” Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, recounted to CNN after the closed-door lunch. “We’ll see where this ends up, we still don’t know the details of this initial proposal, but, as it’s written right now, I’m not only a no, I’m a hell no.”

Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, expressed similar sentiments when he left the lunch early, underscoring the shift in dynamics among Republican senators since the initial $2.2 trillion package was passed unanimously in March.

The divisions between the White House and Republicans come at a time when rank-and-file members have seen the President’s polls dipping in key swing states and as the US has struggled to shake the grip of coronavirus as allies across the world have managed with far better outcomes. The negotiations also come as billions remain unspent in the last stimulus packages, a point that conservatives argue that the next round must be more targeted.

The divergent opinions between the White House and Senate Republicans have had the effect of holding off negotiations that were expected to begin in earnest this week.

“We can’t negotiate on a vague concept. We need a specific bill.” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat who met in a separate meeting with Mnuchin, Meadows and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “When can they get us that bill? Who knows.”

Mnuchin, citing the expiring enhanced unemployment funds, is pressing for an agreement by the end of next week.

“We’re going to try to get something done by the end of next week,” he told reporters in the Capitol. “That’s the time frame because we want to get something done before the unemployment insurance expires. This is a process.”

The roughly 75-minute meeting between White House negotiators and the Democratic leaders represented the first substantial talks between the two sides in months. But without a GOP proposal, Meadows acknowledged actual negotiations would have to wait.

“Obviously, the leader and the speaker are waiting for any guidance from Senate Republicans,” Meadows told reporter as he left the meeting with Democrats, which he characterized as “very good.”

One area of progress, according to GOP senators, was on the funding for testing and tracing measures and other key public health agencies. The new funds, proposed by Senate Republicans, had become a central dispute after the White House proposed zeroing out state grants for testing and new funds for the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health, as well as reducing money for the Pentagon’s virus efforts.

Meadows and Mnuchin, over the course of several hours and two days, met with the three Republican senators responsible on health care and appropriations issues — Sens. Richard Shelby of Alabama, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Roy Blunt of Missouri — to try and iron out the differences.

Blunt said staff is working to get the administration negotiators more details about their specific requests and needs before a final agreement can be reached. He called the discussions with Mnuchin and Meadows “very frank,” but said things are “moving in the right direction.”

“Like everything here, nothing’s done until everything is done, but we’re getting close,” Blunt said.

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