Doomed-to-Fail Senate Vote Will Usher Final Scene on Stimulus

The U.S. Senate is poised to vote Thursday on whether to advance a slimmed-down Republican-crafted pandemic relief bill, opening what’s likely to be the final stage of the months-long partisan battle over fiscal stimulus.

Democrats say they have the votes to block a narrowly tailored bill introduced by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell from even reaching the floor. Once that happens, it isn’t clear whether negotiations might resume, or if lawmakers will leave Washington to wage their November election campaigns without approving a fresh dollop of aid to businesses and workers hurt by the Covid-19 crisis.

McConnell on Wednesday expressed doubt Democrats want any deal, telling reporters they appear more interested in taking their case for a big-ticket relief package to voters. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer was more optimistic, saying Republicans are under growing political pressure to get a deal and seeing signs the Trump administration is more open to compromise.

“If it’s defeated, there’s a decent chance they will come back to the table and we get a better bill,” Schumer told reporters Wednesday. “That’s what we’re hoping for.”

For now, though, senators in both parties are hardening their positions.

Partisan Voting

Almost all Republicans are expected to vote to advance the McConnell bill, which features some of the aspects of a $1 trillion GOP proposal that many in the party balked at a month ago. It’s expected to cost $500 billion to $700 billion, with some of that covered by unspent funds allocated to support U.S. Federal Reserve facilities.

The so-called skinny bill — far less than the $2.2 trillion relief that Democrats want — restores supplemental jobless benefits and extends small-business aid, but doesn’t include comprehensive state and local aid, or another round of stimulus checks for individuals.

Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have dismissed the Republican bill as a “check-the-box” effort to give endangered incumbents cover in the November elections. Democrats can block it from debate on the Senate floor because it needs the support of 60 members to advance under filibuster rules. Republicans hold a narrow 53-47 majority.

The pared-back proposal, released Tuesday afternoon, provides a $300-per-week unemployment benefit enhancement, $105 billion for schools, a $10 billion grant to the U.S. Postal Service, $258 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses, $47 billion for vaccines and testing needs, and liability protections for employers.

Planes, Trains

Absent from the bill: additional help for airlines, which face a wave of job cuts when support runs out from the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, the last big stimulus package. Underscoring the economy’s continued strains thanks to the pandemic, Bill Flynn, Amtrak’s chief executive officer warned Wednesday about the impact of expiring CARES aid. Flynn said the passenger rail network needs $2.84 billion in additional funding by Oct. 1 to avoid dismissals and service cuts.

‘Poison Pill’

Besides the size, Democrats have slammed the bill for “poison pill” provisions that include lawsuit protections for businesses that reopen and a tax break for paying for private-school costs.

McConnell this week made the case for his skinny bill, saying it focuses on issues both sides agree on, including the continued help for small businesses provided under the Paycheck Protection Program created in the CARES Act.

The White House and congressional Democrats have been more than $1 trillion apart on the stimulus since negotiations broke off Aug. 7. Democrats lowered their demand from $3.4 trillion that passed the House in May to $2.2 trillion, but haven’t budged beyond that.

Schumer said Wednesday he saw some potential signs of openness in the Trump administration to a bigger package than the $1 trillion it previously endorsed. He pointed to remarks last week by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin at a House hearing.

Mnuchin said Sept. 1 that “whether it’s $1 trillion or $1.5 trillion — again, let’s not get caught on a number. Let’s agree on things. We can move forward on a bipartisan basis now.”

“If they come back and meet us in the middle, we’ll be eager to talk to them,” Schumer said Wednesday.

Even so, Mnuchin and Pelosi were unable to bridge their gap in a telephone call after that hearing last week. In a statement last Tuesday night, Pelosi said she told Mnuchin that Democrats had “serious questions” remaining in any negotiations.

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