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Why Republicans are dragging their feet on more stimulus

Republicans have let expanded unemployment expire amid a dire economic situation. Here’s why.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images

Despite a dire need for unemployment support, the looming threat of thousands of evictions, and growing food insecurity across the country, some Republicans still aren’t sold on more stimulus.

“If you’re looking for total consensus among Republican senators, you’re not going to find one,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday when asked about GOP support for a potential deal. “I’m not anticipating a 100-nothing vote in the Senate this time.”

That’s a stark change from four months ago, when the Senate voted 96-0 to pass the CARES Act. The difference might seem surprising — the economy isn’t much better than it was in March, and most US adults say they want the government to do more to curtail the coronavirus pandemic and help Americans weather its fallout. But passing the initial $2.2 trillion stimulus was a large enough step for some Republican lawmakers: Now more traditional GOP concerns — namely, the national debt — are rising to the fore.

“I think we should be focused on reopening the economy, not simply shoveling trillions of dollars out of Washington. I think this bill is the wrong approach,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) told reporters last week.

The GOP split on the stimulus has complicated negotiations, even as key support programs expire and the 2020 election draws nearer. It has also underscored an awkward tension in the party: While some members acknowledge the necessity of doing more, and may even depend on it for reelection, others seem eager to stake out a more fiscally conservative position to prevent blowback from the base down the line.

Many Republicans want to get something done, particularly battleground senators

A swath of Republicans — particularly battleground senators — are interested in approving more stimulus, albeit at much lower levels than what Democrats have proposed.

Lawmakers in this camp include moderates Mitt Romney (R-UT), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), and Rob Portman (R-OH), as well as vulnerable members up for reelection in November, such as Susan Collins (R-ME) and Martha McSally (R-AZ). Senate Republican leadership, too, has backed the HEALS Act, a $1 trillion counterproposal to the $3 trillion HEROES Act that Democrats passed in May.

Some Republicans have come around recently, as state reopenings have floundered and the government struggles to get the pandemic under control. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), for example, told Politico in early June that he saw the economy beginning to “come back.” More recently, however, he has argued that the Senate shouldn’t leave for recess until a stimulus deal gets worked out with the Democrats. There’s now a “broad” sense that more action is required, even if calls for it are far from unanimous, a GOP aide told Vox.

Among the Senate Republicans most eager to strike a deal with Democrats are those up for reelection in 2020.

Vulnerable Republican incumbents, including Collins, McSally, and Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, have made the CARES Act’s coronavirus aid to their states a central part of their reelection pitch to voters. And they’re not the only ones. Cornyn, a safer incumbent representing a traditionally red state that’s become a coronavirus hot spot, is pushing for an agreement; on Wednesday, Romney, Collins, and McSally even introduced their own plan for unemployment insurance, which would offer a supplemental benefit lower than what the Democrats want but more generous than what other Republicans have proposed.

“Taking steps now so these candidates can come back in October to say we’ve done this, we’ve addressed this ... is really huge, and that’s why this stuff is so important,” Republican pollster Neil Newhouse told Vox. “It impacts the political environment; it adds stress to families. It may not change people’s votes — at least not significantly — but it’s just another challenge to overcome for our candidates.”

Before the coronavirus forced a mass shutdown of American businesses, the economy had always been Trump’s and Republicans’ strong suit. Earlier this year, many Republicans were optimistic the economy would return after the initial coronavirus spikes were contained.

“The economy has been the thing that Republicans and Trump have pointed to throughout his entire presidency, and I do think there were a lot of voters that were willing to excuse Trump’s behavior because the economy was strong,” said Jessica Taylor, Senate editor at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

Now it’s becoming clear that Trump and the federal government’s complete mismanagement of the coronavirus crisis means the economy will continue to lag.

“Arguably, [the economy] was something that could have been less hit had we taken this virus more seriously from the get-go,” Taylor said. “I think the two are sort of inextricably linked.” And if the trend of new coronavirus hot spots flaring up and continuing to depress the economy — or if Congress can’t pass more economic relief to save people from evictions or losing their homes — lingers, that doesn’t bode well for the party in power.

“The picture gets more complicated as we get in the fall because of kids going back to school, child care being up in the air, unemployment benefits running out, and people not being able to pay their rent or mortgages because of this,” Newhouse said.

Even as these vulnerable Republicans urge leadership to come to an agreement on the stimulus deal, one of their chief opponents may be conservative members of their party who seem content to reject the GOP’s efforts.

“Depending on how popular stimulus is in some of these states, how many people are fearing unemployment, it can certainly cost votes for Republicans” if nothing gets done, says Brian Riedl, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute who’s previously served as the chief economist for Sen. Portman.

Some Republicans are increasingly worried about the national debt

While their colleagues call for more aid, a vocal contingent of Republicans have criticized their party’s bill on the stimulus and espoused concerns about adding to the national debt.

“The White House is trying to solve bad polling by agreeing to indefensibly bad debt,” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) said in a statement. “This proposal is not targeted to fix precise problems — it’s about Democrats and Trumpers competing to outspend each other.”

It’s a somewhat puzzling position — also held by Sens. Rand Paul (KY) and Cruz (TX) — given the electoral fallout the party could experience if it doesn’t take action, and the severe economic difficulties that millions of people and businesses around the country continue to grapple with.

“It’s not a winning hand that Republicans are trying to play here,” a Democratic operative told Vox. “I think it’s only made matters complicated that they’re at war with their own caucus.”

As Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell has emphasized, concerns about the debt are warranted, but “this is not the time to act on those concerns” due to the scope of the economic crisis. It’s worth noting, too, that lower interest rates currently make borrowing less burdensome for the federal government, not to mention that Senate Republicans were far less wary of adding to the debt when they approved tax cuts back in 2017.

There are a couple of reasons that Republicans could be retreating to this positioning, however: With the deficit set to hit a record high this year, some lawmakers may be genuinely wary of the implications, as well as concerned about blowback from conservative voters.

“Politically, I’m guessing that a lot of Republicans are sensing that we are a year or two away from the Tea Party backlash,” says Riedl.

As Club for Growth, a conservative group that opposes the GOP bill, has argued, a segment of voters could be less likely to turn out or support Republican candidates because of their backing for what they view as excessive spending. In a poll that the organization fielded among likely voters in battleground states, 33 percent said they’d be less likely to back the GOP candidate if they supported another trillion-dollar addition to the debt while money from the CARES Act still hasn’t been spent.

But Newhouse, the Republican pollster whose firm is working for a number of Republican Senate candidates, said many voters have more immediate concerns — like where the money for their rent and food is going to come from.

“The concerns about adding to the deficit are far outweighed by the health concerns and economic concerns of Americans due to coronavirus,” Newhouse said. “The challenge for Republican candidates seeking reelection is not the Republican base; it’s independents, it’s moderates, it’s swing voters. And the furthest thing from their minds is running up the deficit.”

Some senators have argued, too, that the government needs to wait to approve any more stimulus until all the money from the CARES Act has been spent. Some states, like Indiana, for example, have not used the federal funds they’ve been allocated yet because there’s been inconsistent communication about restrictions on how the money can be used.

“The argument is let’s look at what we’ve already done and see the impact on the economy,” the GOP aide told Vox. “We need to give ... the CARES Act a chance to go to work.” (The argument doesn’t take into account the fact that certain provisions in the CARES Act, like enhanced UI, have already expired.)

There’s also been speculation that some Republicans could be setting themselves up for a post-Trump future by taking an aggressive stance on fiscal responsibility, an approach that could help reestablish themselves as the “party of no” if Biden is elected, Bloomberg reports. As one Democratic aide theorized, fiscal conservatism could help serve as a key ideological touchstone for the party as it tries to figure out what it stands for in a new administration.

Meanwhile, Trump’s role in negotiations — and coronavirus response — is an ongoing wild card

As has been the case with many congressional negotiations, the White House, too, plays an important role in any final deal.

Unlike some Senate Republicans, the White House hasn’t been as concerned about the size of the bill. As a result, negotiators like Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have previously pushed for more expansive measures than many Republicans would like to stomach, though it’s unclear if that will happen again this time around.

Thus far, there have been breaks between the White House and Senate Republicans on other provisions as well: Although McConnell has said that liability protections aimed at shielding businesses from lawsuits were a key tenet for congressional lawmakers, the White House has indicated it’s open to a deal without them, the Washington Post reported. Senate Republicans have also opposed a push from the White House to include $1.75 billion for the design and construction of a new FBI building.

And even if Republicans and Democrats agree on a coronavirus aid package, Trump’s overall coronavirus response still presents a big problem for Republican senators in November.

“What’s hurting Republicans the most is President Trump not appearing to take this seriously,” Taylor told Vox.

Trump’s lackluster response to the coronavirus is becoming a big issue in the 2020 campaign. It would be one thing if Congress were passing more aid in a country that had successfully and definitively flattened the coronavirus curve, but the United States is still seeing new coronavirus hot spots flaring up, as Vox’s Dylan Scott reported. And despite recently endorsing commonsense things like mask-wearing, the president keeps veering off message.

Pressed by Axios reporter Jonathan Swan about a recent spike in coronavirus deaths, Trump said, “They are dying. That’s true. It is what it is. ... It’s under control as much as you can control it.”

And asked about the latest with schools reopening on a Wednesday Fox & Friends appearance, Trump said of the coronavirus, “This thing is going away. It will go away like things go away, and my view is that schools should be open.”

Trump is still adamant that the virus will “go away,” even as his administration remains unwilling to take even basic steps to improve access to testing, contact tracing, and isolating infected individuals, therefore allowing the virus to spread further. The country is already in dire economic straits, and the majority of Americans polled recently say the country is headed in the wrong direction.

“It’s an extraordinary flip of the mood in the country in a short amount of time ... that portends change,” Newhouse said. “Whether [voters] hold Trump or Republicans in the House or Senate accountable or not, they’re still going to vote for change.”