The Senate majority leader is ridiculing the idea of sending aid to beleaguered states and has even suggested he’d prefer states declare bankruptcy rather than get rescued by the federal government — drawing gasps from Democratic leaders.
“Did he actually say those words?” asked a stunned Washington Sen. Patty Murray, the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate. “The world is upside down. It is not time to say to a family, a business, a government agency, anywhere, to go bankrupt.”
Moreover, McConnell said on Kentucky radio on Thursday that Congress should “press the pause button” on any new aid, and that the full Senate must be in town to pass the next coronavirus bill. That conflicts with Democrats’ timeline, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi arguing the next phase is needed “as soon as possible.”
The early battle lines over what to include and when to do it suggest the next clash will be even more brutal than previous episodes — divisions that have already led to delays on assistance for small businesses, hospitals, the unemployed and coronavirus testing. Meanwhile, the economy continues to crater, and the death toll rises.
Despite temporary bouts of gridlock this spring, Congress has delivered nearly $3 trillion against the pandemic in an unprecedented, bipartisan rescue effort. But the forecast for future cooperation is cloudy at best.
“I do worry that the political honeymoon may be ending,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.).
Democrats seem intent on moving quickly with more aid bills, eager to fight the spread of the disease while helping record numbers of unemployed and laying the groundwork for a broader economic recovery.
House Democrats are adamant they cannot wait weeks, let alone months, to deliver more relief for cash-strapped state and local governments. Pelosi has said the need is “immediate,” and some members of her leadership team speculate the vote could happen soon after Congress’ scheduled return on May 4.
“It’s not even ‘immediately.’ We’re working on it now,” said Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois, who runs the party’s campaign arm.
She said Democrats view the legislation approved by the House on Thursday as “an interim package.”
“This buys us a little time, but there’s more we have to do, namely, state and local governments,” Bustos said, adding that she and her staff are fielding calls almost daily from desperate mayors and local officials.
Pelosi told her members on a caucus call this week that the next phase — which Democrats are calling CARES 2 — is nearly finished. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters Thursday that the goal is to complete the package by May 4 and vote soon after, though he wouldn’t say when exactly it could come to the floor.
Key committee leaders have spent weeks assembling their priorities, starting with $150 billion in aid for state and local governments. But many House Democrats, particularly on the left, are eyeing a much longer to-do list — monthly cash assistance, protections for renters, money to boost mail-in voting and free health care coverage for coronavirus patients.
As the House met Thursday to take up the latest package, Democrats lined up to rail against McConnell for blocking extra money for cities and states. McConnell and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin took a hard line against including that money in the most recent tranche of aid.