Josh Hawley sets up potential clash in GOP with coronavirus push

Hawley is one of the first Republicans to push a major add-on to Congress’ already extraordinary relief effort, and he’s fighting an uphill battle with his guarded colleagues. But the early maneuvering is a hint of the debate to come in what was once a budget-slashing party that must now weigh just how big to go in the face of a terrifying crisis.

After preaching a go-slow approach early last week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has acknowledged a fourth bill will be needed, likely concentrating on health care. And action is almost certain to be necessary in the coming weeks in other areas: The bill’s signature $377 billion Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses is expected to run out of funding well before its June 30 end date, aides tracking the program say. Former Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen forecast potential 13 percent unemployment; Hawley fears 20 percent or worse.

Republican leaders and those close to McConnell said on Monday that they anticipated seeing how the last package plays out rather than pitching major expansions of that legislation, whose price tag alone is still reverberating in conservative circles.

“The ink’s barely dry on the $2 trillion that just got signed into law, the direct payments haven’t hit yet,” said Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) in an interview on Monday. “When we’re spending this kind of money, we’ve got a responsibility to see what works and what doesn’t.”

Extending the small business program is “probably gonna be the higher priority and I understand that’s the direction that we’re looking at as well,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who is part of McConnell’s leadership team. She suggested both the small business program and the beefed-up unemployment benefits might need to be extended.

Those ideas form the backbone of what could easily win bipartisan approval, perhaps without requiring the herculean task of flying lawmakers back to the Capitol amid fears that lawmakers could spread the virus further.

“There needs to be a Covid 3.1 to correct and amplify the work done in the bill that we passed a couple of weeks ago,” said Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) in an interview on Monday. “I don’t think the steps taken thus far are fully adequate. But it’s hard to define what the next steps should be until we assess how the current program is working.”

Hawley’s proposal would provide businesses with refundable payroll tax rebates that reimburse 80 percent of payroll costs and give a rehiring bonus for businesses for the duration of the crisis. He says that will prevent unemployment offices from being overwhelmed, keep Americans from going into debt and give families a sense of confidence that a job is waiting for them when the crisis is over.

The senator, who has been a reliable ally of the president since winning his seat in 2018, is speaking to both the White House and his colleagues about his idea, and he believes as the breadth of the moment dawns on Washington, it might win more acceptance. He also said he’s open to other avenues to get businesses to rehire and keep on more employees aside from his tax credits.

A White House official said the “president is listening to many ideas from the Hill” but his team is focusing on implementation of the most recent bill. Hawley acknowledges many of his colleagues are thinking similarly.

“People are understandably thinking, ‘We just did this,’” he said. “I don’t think people ought to be criticized for that. I think the landscape is changing so quickly … the scope of this is really just beginning to set in. And my view of this is, let’s take action while we can to try and do the best thing we can for workers — which is save their jobs and rehire them.”

Andrew Desiderio contributed to this report.