January 18, 2022

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Senate brawl derails fast push for new coronavirus relief

McConnell held a conference call later Thursday with Senate Republicans and top administration officials and indicated he’s open to working something out with Democrats, according to two participants. He also has not ruled out bringing his small business-only bill to the floor again and daring Democrats to block it, as he did in a previous round of coronavirus legislation.

The unusual conflict came during a congressional recess, replacing a pro forma Senate session in which no business was meant to be conducted. And it was filled with acrimony, as McConnell accused Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and his caucus of treating “working Americans as political hostages.”

“The country cannot afford unnecessary wrangling or political maneuvering. Treating this as a normal kind of partisan negotiation could literally cost Americans their jobs,” McConnell said. He argued Democrats’ priorities could be addressed later and that the popular $350 billion Paycheck Protection Program was in far more dire need of funding; Republicans believe the program’s funds will be exhausted in days, not weeks.

But Democratic Maryland Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen each deemed McConnell’s move a “political stunt” and said the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program doesn’t need money at the moment.

“It’s a good program, we strongly support it. It’s bipartisan. But this unanimous consent request was not negotiated. There was no effort made to follow the process that we could get this done. So it won’t get done,” said Cardin, the top Democrat on the Small Business Committee. “The majority leader knows that.”

Afterward, McConnell said he would continue discussions on what to do next and Cardin said Democrats would be willing to modify their proposal. McConnell was also asked by the secretary for the minority on the floor whether Democrats should be prepared to come to the next pro forma session to address another possible attempt to pass the small business money.

The impasse has been complicated further by the congressional recess and lack of face-to-face contact. Normally, McConnell and Schumer see each other each morning on the Senate floor and Democrats and Republicans rub shoulders on a daily basis during roll call votes.

“We’re going to have to have some conference calls on both sides. The normal give and take is not there,” said one Republican senator. “I understand what Mitch is doing, I understand he wants another $250 billion. But Democrats aren’t going to allow that, we know that.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in a press call later Thursday, seemed to cast doubt on whether congressional leaders would reach an agreement before the Senate’s next pro forma session Monday. Pelosi said she hadn’t spoken to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin on Thursday, criticized McConnell’s move as a “stunt” and said Democrats weren’t backing down from their demands.

“Secretary Mnuchin called [Tuesday] and asked for a quarter of a trillion dollars in 48 hours with no data,” Pelosi said. “This morning Leader McConnell honored that request — I say honored, really dishonored the needs that we have — with a stunt on the floor of the Senate.”

The debate on Thursday was actually only over an interim measure; members of both parties agree that an even larger package of legislation will soon be needed to address the faltering economy and health effects of the coronavirus pandemic. In the U.S. alone, more than 425,000 people have contracted the virus and 14,000 have died. At least 16 million Americans have also filed for unemployment claims.

But McConnell said President Donald Trump would accept only the $250 billion in small business funding and not what Democrats preferred. He moved quickly to put that proposal together after Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said businesses were anxious that the fund would run out.

“We cannot play games in this crisis,” McConnell said.

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