| April 26, 2020 12: 00 AM
President Trump and Sen. Mitch McConnell are on a collision course after the Senate majority leader declared that the next round of coronavirus relief sought by the White House must address the exploding federal debt.
Trump supports another massive rescue package as the pandemic takes a sledgehammer to the economy six months before Election Day. But McConnell is slamming on the brakes, responding to rising opposition from his conference after nearly $3 trillion in coronavirus spending approved since March spiked the debt to $24.6 trillion. The Kentucky Republican is determined not to get boxed in by any deal negotiated by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and an administration comfortable with deficits.
“We’ve got to take a pause, here,” Senate Majority Whip John Thune told the Washington Examiner on Friday. The South Dakota Republican confirmed that GOP senators have been voicing hostility to more expensive rescue packages during private, members-only conference calls held over the past several days. But to the extent Trump wants to move forward, Thune said House Democrats should take a backseat in the negotiations.
“The engine that ought to be driving this is the White House and the Republican Senate majority,” he said.
Trump and Senate Republicans are aligned on most key issues. But there is an emerging divide on future coronavirus spending.
The president is seeking reelection amid unemployment that skyrocketed because of business closures implemented to defeat the pandemic. Unfazed by the risks of excessive debt, Trump favors quick action on additional comprehensive stimulus bills to keep the economy afloat until conditions improve.
Senate Republicans want to allow time for rescue funds already appropriated to work before rushing through another package — and they want to limit new coronavirus-related items. Uneasy about borrowing even when times are good, Republicans worry the country’s unprecedented debt load could make a cratering economy worse.
Trump has proposed spending another $2 trillion on infrastructure to stimulate the economy. But if Senate Republicans resist or insist on spending cuts to pay for the projects, Trump could bypass them and negotiate with Pelosi. The California Democrat has a long wish list of proposed expenditures.
“Senate Republicans are going to need to have a mind-meld with the president over what kinds of recovery spending they most agree on,” said Jason Miller, a former Trump adviser who maintains close ties to the president’s inner circle. “Until they and the president get on the same page, there’s an opening for Pelosi.”
McConnell caused a political firestorm when he said Senate Republicans would no longer fast-track coronavirus relief and suggested that bankruptcy was an option for cash-strapped states. Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York are proposing hundreds of millions in assistance to state governments, saying their budgets are stretched because of the pandemic. Republicans are opposed, worrying the money will be used to finance bad decisions made before the coronavirus hit.
Republican insiders familiar with McConnell’s thinking on the matter say the Senate majority leader is open to supporting more relief for the states and another shot of federal pandemic stimulus. But McConnell wants to avoid being outflanked as Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who work very well together, negotiate another rescue package that minimizes the interests of Senate Republicans. The Kentuckian’s deliberate throwing of the gauntlet was meant to raise the bar for Senate GOP buy-in and force Mnuchin and Pelosi to operate on ground favorable to his conference.
“We’re not going to be a part of any bill negotiated by Steve Mnuchin and Nancy Pelosi,” a Republican senator and McConnell ally said. “When they sit down at table to talk spending, they are not counterparties negotiating. They are allies strategizing.”
The White House and McConnell’s office declined to comment for this story.