One man is standing in the way of coronavirus aid
Americans around the country, from the unemployed to the business class, are on tenterhooks to see if the federal government can get it together to pass another pandemic economic rescue. A bipartisan group has coalesced around a new package totaling about $908 billion — including a $300 per week boost to unemployment insurance, money for vaccine distribution, significant aid to cities and states, and another re-up of the CARES Act's grants for small businesses. It's far, far short of what is needed to ensure all Americans get what they need. Still, it's much better than nothing — roughly the bare minimum to stave off an utter catastrophe.
But there is still one enormous obstacle: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. On Tuesday, McConnell released a version of the same meager $500 billion counter-proposal he's been insisting on for months, and proceeded to attack the bipartisan deal. "The solution to this impasse has been in plain sight for a long time now for anyone willing to see it," he said Thursday, clearly implying that they should just pass his garbage plan. If he gets his way, many Americans will starve this winter.
Now, to be fair, it's hard to avoid the suspicion that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi simply did not want to pass another round of stimulus back in September and October, for fear of helping Trump win re-election. On several occasions she blew up negotiations with large asks that she surely knew were non-starters, and kept changing her demands.
That said, the House did pass a giant rescue package back in May, and McConnell could have taken it up at any time. (Indeed, if he had done so there is good reason to think Trump would have squeaked out an Electoral College victory.) And on Wednesday, Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer signaled they were willing to endorse the $908 billion proposal, cutting their previous demands by more than half. If Pelosi was sandbagging the economy to help Biden before the election, McConnell is pretty clearly aiming to do the same thing to harm him now that Biden is president-elect.
What's more, as Jordan Weismann argues at Slate, McConnell's table-scraps proposal is arguably worse than nothing. The CARES Act expansion of unemployment coverage to workers who were not previously eligible (a different program from the boost to payments), which is currently covering about 14 million people, is set to expire literally the day after Christmas, but McConnell would extend it for a measly month, and he includes no boost to normal unemployment.
Neither would he give any aid to states, cities, or transit agencies — some of which, like in D.C. and New York, are on the verge of collapse. On the contrary, McConnell would cut off the CARES Act program allowing the Federal Reserve to lend to states and cities. "The bill doesn't just deny states more help; it cuts what little safety net currently exists out from under them while they are already in free fall," Weissmann writes. And if McConnell gets this bargain, which also includes the business liability shield he has long favored, you can be absolutely certain he will do everything possible to stop another round of rescues for as long as Biden remains president.
This is just McConnell's MO. He's an utterly ruthless political operator who regards the prospect of mass unemployment, skyrocketing poverty, and tens of thousands of business failures like a hungry wolf regards a big juicy steak — so long as those things are happening under a Democratic presidential incumbent, so he or she will get blamed for them. McConnell did exactly this back in 2009-16 to harm the Obama administration, and it worked great.
Now, though, it appears that the looming economic cliff may be cracking McConnell's hold over his caucus. All that would be needed is a couple Republican votes in the Senate, and for Trump to sign on — and several conservative senators like Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) got behind the bipartisan bill Thursday afternoon. If McConnell allows the proposal to come up for a vote, it seems likely it would pass.
As an outsider, it's hard to know for sure what the most sensible negotiating stance for Democrats to take would be. But given that Democrats have little leverage and a delusional madman is president, uniting with the handful of Republicans who favor the $905 billion package, and then loudly making it clear that McConnell is the stumbling block, seems like a reasonable strategy. Mass protests might help this along as well. A good old angry mob might make Senate Republicans think twice about starving the American people for their own political benefit.
Without some kind of funding for at least getting the vaccine distributed, the economy will remain in the toilet for months or even years — perhaps threatening even the Republicans' beloved stock market. Let's hope partial sanity prevails for once.