Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. | Patrick Semansky/AP Photo
Mitch McConnell is open to cutting a deal to provide reeling states and cities with relief during the pandemic-fueled recession. But it will come at a price.
In an interview on Monday, the Senate majority leader said it’s “highly likely” the next coronavirus response bill will aid local governments whose budgets have been decimated by lockdowns and now face spiraling deficits. But to unlock that money, McConnell said he will “insist” Congress limit the liabilities of health care workers, business owners and employees from lawsuits as they reopen in the coming weeks and months.
“We probably will do another bill. What I’m saying is it won’t just be about money,” McConnell said. “The next pandemic coming will be the lawsuit pandemic in the wake of this one. So we need to prevent that now when we have the opportunity to do it.”
In acknowledging that states like New York and New Jersey can count on more federal aid in the next massive relief bill, the Kentucky Republican is cracking the door to an agreement with congressional Democrats after taking a hard line with his recent suggestion that states go “the bankruptcy route.”
But as befits his reputation for tough tactics, he said that would demand that his liability proposal be included in any deal with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Similarly, Pelosi has said that any new coronavirus bill will have to include money for local governments.
“I’m open to additional assistance. It’s not just going to be a check, though, you get my point?” McConnell said. “We’re not writing a check to send down to states to allow them to, in effect, finance mistakes they’ve made unrelated to the coronavirus.”
McConnell also slightly softened his stance that perhaps some states might go bankrupt rather than be rescued by the federal government. But he did not back away entirely from last week’s comments that he would be in favor of some states declaring bankruptcy to escape crippling debts.
Under siege from Democrats seeking to oust him as majority leader in November, McConnell said the entire episode was “a classic case of taking things out of context” and that he never expected many states to use that option even if it were available to them.
“The fundamental point I was trying to make is that we’re not interested in borrowing money from future generations to help states solve problems that they created themselves,” McConnell said. “The bankruptcy suggestion would have been optional anyway. I wasn’t assuming many of them were going to take that option.”
Taken together, McConnell’s comments suggest another large recovery package is not out of the question in the coming weeks despite some GOP complaints about rising deficits.
Senate Republicans like Bill Cassidy of Louisiana also have endorsed sending billions more to states, and several other GOP senators have expressed a clear preference to start hammering out a new bill.
But it’s still going to be a herculean effort. And McConnell said he hasn’t talked to Pelosi about it yet.
“As soon as we can reach an agreement, we’ll do it,” he said.
McConnell fought Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Pelosi’s push for state and local money in the most recent $484 billion round of aid, a demand Democrats dropped in return for more hospital and testing money to go along with small business funds. President Donald Trump signed the bill into law last week and Democrats immediately clamored for more action.
As long as the Senate was in recess, it would have been difficult if not impossible to include aid to states anyway, because one conservative senator could have easily blocked such a bill. The Senate will return on May 4, limiting individual senators’ leverage.
But McConnell’s resistance to more money for states and cities also reflects deep skepticism among Republicans about sending money to states run by Democrats, even though GOP-controlled states also want assistance. Just on Monday Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) trashed the idea: “We’re supposed to go bail them out? That’s not right.”
Yet Pelosi said that sentiment misunderstood what Democrats were trying to do. She said funds for state and local governments was about helping the front-line “heroes” during the pandemic like firefighters and health workers.
“We want to, again, make sure that these people who are risking their lives to save other people’s lives are not risking their jobs as well because the state and localities cannot pay them,” Pelosi said on MSNBC on Monday.
Asked about her insistence on that money, McConnell responded with similar rhetoric about protecting businesses and employees from lawsuits.
“We can’t afford to not protect all of the brave people who have been at work during all of this,” he said. “It’s going to take a certain amount of courage to open your business up again if you think there’s a lawyer right out on the curb waiting to go after you if he sees somebody within six feet of someone else.”