Vulnerable Republicans have a clear message for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell: no deal, no recess.
With talks between the White House and Democratic leadership at an impasse, Senate Republicans up in November are pressing for the chamber to stay in session until some agreement is reached.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who faces a potentially competitive re-election challenge, said that it would “look like a dereliction of duty” for the Senate to go home without clinching a deal as millions of Americans face economic catastrophe.
“The COVID-19 response is going to be an important part of the 2020 election. It’s obviously not going away,” he added. “It will be a looming factor.”
The political drama comes after the expiration of both a federal $600-weekly boost in unemployment insurance and a moratorium on evictions. Coronavirus cases and deaths are also continuing to spike upwards and the U.S. economy remains in the doldrums.
The multiple crises pose a real risk to the Senate GOP majority and President Donald Trump’s re-election — and the senators’ push reflects concern about the inaction. McConnell (R-Ky.), meanwhile, must balance the interests of candidates facing tough re-election bids with the hardline members of his caucus who complain about “debt fatigue” and worry about the trillions of dollars in red ink incurred during the pandemic.
Several Republicans with difficult races in November are signaling that they are feeling the pressure from voters back home over the lapse in assistance. On top of that, their Democratic opponents are buying ads hammering them for inaction.
So far, high-level talks between the White House and Democratic leaders have yielded nothing. The White House is even floating the possibility of executive action on unemployment payments and evictions, effectively sidestepping Congress. Senate Republicans emerged from a closed-door lunch Tuesday saying the August recess scheduled to begin at the end of this week would likely be postponed.
“Suffice it to say that if we can’t get this done in the midst of a persistent pandemic then we have failed the American people,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine.), who faces a well-funded Democratic challenger. “And I am optimistic that we will be able to get it done.”
The stakes could not be higher for McConnell, who is in cycle himself. McConnell acknowledged again on Tuesday that he is governing a divided caucus, which Democrats are seizing on.
“If you’re looking for a total consensus among Republican senators, you’re not going to find it,” McConnell said. “So you do have divisions about what to do.”
With no deal close at hand, McConnell is expected to keep the Senate in session past Thursday, with members going home if they choose and coming back on short notice should a deal be reached.
As some Republicans seek to deliver for their states, a handful of fiscal hawks are accusing their vulnerable colleagues of seeking additional spending simply to boost their re-election prospects. But that conventional wisdom could backfire, they say.
“There will be a certain portion of our Republican electorate at the very least who says, we thought we were not the party of borrow and spend, we thought that was the other guys,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said. “And so I think there is a danger of dampening the turnout of your base, sending them to vote for a third party or them staying home because they’re disturbed that Republicans are acting like Democrats.”
McConnell has asked members to file amendments in the event of a floor vote this week designed to put Democrats on the record when it comes to unemployment insurance and other outstanding issues. Senate Republicans said after their party lunch Tuesday that amendment votes were likely this week but not yet set in stone.
Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), who is behind in nearly every poll against Democratic challenger Mark Kelly, has sought twice to pass a one-week extension to the $600 weekly benefit to provide more time for Democrats and Republicans to negotiate. McSally’s office declined to comment for this story.
Throughout the negotiations, Republicans have harangued Democrats for being unwilling to bend on their demand for an extension of the extra unemployment payments as part of a $3 trillion package the House passed in May. Republicans argue the benefits provide a disincentive for some Americans to work and are seeking changes to the formula.
“To the extent Nancy Pelosi and the far left remain resistant to constructive solutions and insistent upon three and a half trillion dollars of far-left priorities, I think that will be advantageous to our Republican candidates,” said Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), who faces a competitive race against Jon Ossoff, also blamed Democrats for the standstill.
“We need to stay here and wrestle this to the ground,” Perdue said. “Unfortunately, we’ve got political resistance on the other side. It’s hard to negotiate when nobody negotiates.”
Democrats, however, see a party that hasn’t taken the crisis seriously from the start. And they argue Republicans are to blame for letting the unemployment benefits expire.
“If the Senate Republicans who are up for re-election wanted a deal, Mitch McConnell would be in the room trying to get a deal. Period, stop,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said. “They may send out a statement — but at some point, you have to believe what they do, not what they say.”
Some, however, see neither party benefiting from the disarray.
“Most voters are looking at what’s been going on up here the last 30 days and they concluded it’s an abject, moron-a-thon and they’re not impressed,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.). “Nor do I think they should be. I think it will hurt both the Republicans and Democrats, and it should.”
James Arkin contributed to this report.