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The U.S. Senate is expected to vote Thursday on another round of much-needed COVID-19 relief. And the Republican leaders introducing it expect it to fail.
“We’re not going to get much help from the Democrats, so we’re not going to get 60,” Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the second-highest ranking Republican in the Senate, said Tuesday, referencing the 60-vote threshold to consider legislation on the Senate floor.
The Republican package under consideration, despite being strengthened slightly in the last week, remains inadequate. Reportedly around $500 billion, it fails to provide additional direct aid to states and municipalities facing budget crises as a result of the pandemic. It shortchanges targeted, proven relief like expanded unemployment benefits and doesn’t include financial help for renters and landlords caught in the economic downturn tied to the coronavirus pandemic. It still fails to meet the $ 1 trillion level of relief Senate Republicans themselves floated in July, and the $1.5 trillion ceiling White House negotiators have expressed an openness to.
“Senators will not be voting on whether this targeted package satisfies every one of their legislative hopes and dreams,” Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in Tuesday floor remarks. “We vote on whether to make laws, whether to forge a compromise, whether to do a lot of good for the country and keep arguing over the remaining differences later.”
We want to see a compromise forged. It’s unacceptable that one has not materialized since several federal coronavirus aid programs lapsed at the end of July and beginning of August. But until Senate Republicans come up above the $1 billion threshold they proposed earlier this summer, they are essentially negotiating against themselves. That doesn’t count as bipartisan in our book.
Should Democratic leaders be willing to settle for something below the $2.2 trillion they’ve previously offered in negotiations with the White House, even though that was already less than the more than $3 trillion bill passed by the House of Representatives in May? Yes, absolutely. Something is better than nothing, particularly given the immediacy of the needs at play here.
With the bill on the Senate floor this week already expected to fail, however, it seems that nothing is already guaranteed to be the result. It’s as if leadership cares more about political calculations and making the other side look bad than they do about addressing the difficult realities of the American people.
The political theatrics, to be clear, are one of the few areas of bipartisan overlap right now. Both parties are guilty of it, but not all of the actors deserve the same review. McConnell’s performance is especially cynical.
It’s not clear what will happen next if and when Thursday’s vote fails. In March, a similar situation ultimately led to a better, if imperfect, relief package. Since then, however, disagreements on police reform and extending coronavirus relief have persisted without resolution.
What is clear is that Congress can’t keep following the same script. In that vein, we’d suggest that Maine’s two senators continue to push for compromise. They can do this in an unexpected way.
By voting against proceeding to an inadequate bill already expected to fail, Sen. Susan Collins could send a powerful message to leaders of her party that results matter more than optics.
And by voting yes, Sen. Angus King could separate himself from other members of the Democratic caucus and stand strongly as an independent pushing for continued negotiations.
In both cases, Maine’s senators could separate themselves from the thus-far unproductive political gamesmanship. They could use their most powerful tools of elected office — their votes — to make it clear that the current stalemate is unacceptable, and that the American people are more important than the political stage.
It doesn’t seem that either senator is poised to vote this way, though both rightly stress the need for bipartisan negotiation.
In a Wednesday statement to the BDN, Collins called the Republican bill “a starting point for negotiations on a bipartisan relief package that can be signed into law.” She highlighted how it would extend the Paycheck Protection Program she helped author that has provided forgivable loans to small businesses (including the Bangor Daily News), and includes other elements she has supported including more funding for COVID-19 testing, relief for farmers and fishermen, and child care and public school aid.
Collins also acknowledged that the bill “has some notable omissions,” including direct municipal aid like what she has proposed in separate legislation, and said that the Republican package “does not provide sufficient and workable assistance for public schools.” She also cited her work to include aid for the motorcoach industry.
“The first step to improve and strengthen this relief package is to begin debating it,” Collins said. “I call on my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to set aside partisan politics and to come together, as we have over the last several months, to provide much-needed relief to support the health of Americans and the health of our economy in the face of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.”
In a statement to the BDN Wednesday, King highlighted the deadly and costly toll the coronavirus continues to have on American communities, and pointed to McConnell’s previous lack of urgency and insufficient efforts to pass additional aid.
“You can’t respond to political theater or messaging with more of the same — which would likely be misconstrued or misinterpreted,” King said when asked about potentially voting yes to send a message that inaction is unacceptable. “The best way to solve the challenges facing our nation is to initiate good-faith, bipartisan negotiations, incorporate meaningful feedback, and craft a realistic, responsible piece of legislation that heals and helps Americans in need get through this epidemic.”
Perhaps we’re being overly simplistic or unrealistic, but a simple reality of the situation is that the current path hasn’t been working.
More than political messaging and show votes, millions of American people need help. Congress must find a way to deliver it.