“Frankly I didn’t really understand what they were thinking. … At a time cases are spiking, we’re gonna pull back?” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). | Carolyn Kaster – Pool/Getty Images
As coronavirus cases spike across the country, President Donald Trump and his top officials say everything is mostly under control. But Senate Republicans are pressing them to show a little urgency.
The latest outbreaks are also reshaping the GOP’s political and legislative strategy, with Republicans planning to focus more on health care in the next coronavirus relief bill. And they’re flashing rare frustration at the Trump administration for its decision to wind down federally supported testing sites.
“Frankly I didn’t really understand what they were thinking. … At a time cases are spiking, we’re gonna pull back?” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who wrote a letter to the administration along with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) urging them to change course.
He predicted a reversal: “I’d be surprised if there’s a good reason not to continue it.”
Meanwhile Trump is still downplaying the virus’ impact, questioning the value of testing and ridiculing the idea of wearing a mask despite holding large-scale campaign rallies. While touring an auto plant last month in Michigan, Trump rejected using a mask, saying it was “not necessary.”
But mask-wearing has become virtually ubiquitous among GOP senators and some are now urging Trump to set an example by wearing a face covering, which medical experts say helps slow the spread of the virus.
“We’re going to be required to wear it. … I think he should be leading that effort, yeah,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.). “Should he be wearing a mask? In certain situations, yes.”
“I’d prefer he do it. You know he’s not gonna do it. I’m not excusing it, obviously. I’d prefer he wore it because people follow an example,” added Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), though he noted the president has a different routine than most people; Trump and those around him are regularly tested for the virus.
Trump’s decision not to wear a mask also makes it harder for GOP governors to enforce similar measures without looking like they’re breaking with the president. At this point, many Republican-controlled states are grappling with virus spikes that are largely out of senators’ control.
“I think mayors, governors, the president, they have a responsibility. I think they ought to be talking about masks more and social distancing,” said Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), whose state has seen a significant surge in Covid-19 cases.
The new round of infections comes at a critical time for the GOP. Trump is reeling in the polls and threatening to take the party’s Senate majority down with him. Trump has long warned Republicans about the perils of splitting with him, including in a recent interview with POLITICO. But as the crisis continues to get worse, further hampering the once-strong economy, more GOP senators are gingerly urging a course correction.
The Senate is also about to begin serious consideration of a big coronavirus relief package, which may be Congress’ last word on the matter before the election.
The White House, meanwhile, has sought to move on from the virus. Trump and his administration have wound down the virus briefings that were a mainstay this spring. And Vice President Mike Pence presented a rosy case to Senate Republicans on Wednesday, saying deaths are down and the country is well-prepared to fight infections.
The worst is over, they argue. But Republicans in the Senate say this is not the moment to pull back.
“This is no time to decide that we can walk away and leave this all up to the states,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.).
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said as states decide how to reopen, the federal government needs to continue coordinating testing and developing treatments and vaccines. She also said federal health officials should brief the public and appear before Congress.
Whether Trump himself should talk more to the nation about the virus, however, caused her to pause: “Yes. Well. Depends what he says.”
Trump has been criticized for some of his coronavirus comments, including suggesting disinfectants could help eradicate the virus. His regular briefings ended shortly after those remarks in late April.
With Trump currently declining to use his bully pulpit to urge Americans to take more precautions, like wear masks and practice social distancing, GOP senators are trying to fill the void.
The chamber will focus on crafting another economic relief package after it returns from a two week July 4 recess. And the outbreaks in an increasing number of states are beginning to influence how that legislation will come together.
“I think it is worth it for us to look at the next bill a little bit differently and to think: What have we left open on the health care side? Should there be more money for testing? Should there be more money for vaccines or therapies?” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio). “We have to acknowledge we’re not making as much progress as we hoped to on the coronavirus.”
The next coronavirus package could also prove more difficult to pull together, compared with March, when the Senate passed a $2 trillion bill amid a stock market crash, nationwide lockdowns and uncertainty about the virus’ effect.
After unanimous support for the March bill, Senate Republicans said in interviews this week that it’s too early to say whether the caucus will be united on another major package. Divisions have already cropped up on money for state governments.
“I think that’s gonna have about 53 different opinions,” said Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.).
Republicans will also need some bipartisan support to reach the 60-vote threshold needed for passage in the Senate. The House has already approved a sweeping $3 trillion plan authored by Democrats, who are eager to put their imprint on any law. And whatever Congress does will need to be backed by Trump, potentially in a big way to get the GOP on board.
Several Republicans are already arguing that the approach to the next relief package should be more targeted.
“The challenge that we have is this is not like March,” said Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.). “We have sections of the country that are doing very well and sections that are not. Whatever is done has to be more surgical and not a broad- based ‘here’s something for everybody’ because not [all areas are] infected like they were.”
As Trump questions the utility of testing and mask wearing and may or may not be joking about slowing tests down, it’s clear many GOP senators don’t view it as a laughing matter — particularly as they hold out hope of a brisk economic recovery.
“We need to keep focusing on increased testing, speed up treatments and bring the vaccines as quickly as we can,” said Senate HELP Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) “That’s really the only solution for the disease.”