Senate Republican support for moving the next coronavirus relief bill as soon as next month is growing after Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell warned lawmakers this week that the economic damage caused by the pandemic could last for years.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has put the brakes on further coronavirus relief negotiations, citing the budgetary impact of trillions of dollars in unanticipated spending.
But a growing group of GOP senators, which includes some of the conference’s most vulnerable members in this year’s elections, say they shouldn’t let another month pass without significant progress on another economic relief package.
“I think June doesn’t need to come and go without a phase four,” said Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), who has been in contact with representatives of airlines and other industries hit hard by the pandemic.
Wicker said the desire to make substantial progress on another relief package next month is shared by “almost everybody” in the GOP conference “in their heart” even though they might not be calling for quick action publicly.
Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), one of the chamber’s most vulnerable GOP incumbents, took to the floor Wednesday to urge her colleagues not to wait any longer on passing another relief package with hundreds of billions of dollars in additional aid to state and local governments.
“Congress has a tremendous responsibility to help mitigate the impact of this crisis on our states and our local communities and on the families they serve. We must not wait. We should act now,” she said.
She warned that Maine may face one of the worst outcomes in the entire country in terms of lost revenues from plummeting income and sales tax, and said the projected shortfalls “threaten vital state and local services.”
Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), another vulnerable incumbent, on Wednesday urged the Senate not to leave town for the weeklong Memorial Day recess after making little to no progress on another coronavirus relief bill.
“It’s unfathomable that the Senate is set to go on recess without considering any additional #COVID19 assistance for the American people. Anyone who thinks now is the time to go on recess hasn’t been listening,” he tweeted.
Collins later told reporters she agreed with Gardner that the Senate should stay in town until another relief bill is passed.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) said he has urged Senate GOP colleagues to move quickly to address the nation’s soaring unemployment rate, which hit 14.7 percent last month.
“I have made no secret about it. I think that we need to act sooner rather than later on employment,” he said. “On employment, I’d like to see us do something now.”
Hawley is pushing a proposal to have the federal government cover up to 80 percent of wages for workers at any business, up to the national median wage, for the duration of the crisis.
Powell warned last week that the U.S. economy could suffer long-term economic damage from the pandemic and advised that another massive relief package could lay the groundwork for a stronger recovery.
On Tuesday, he told the Senate Banking Committee that failing to provide relief to state and local governments could put a drag on the economy for years.
“We have the evidence of the global financial crisis and the years afterward, where state and local government layoffs and lack of hiring did weigh on economic growth,” he said.
McConnell on Tuesday said lawmakers still need to take more time to assess how the prior four coronavirus relief bills — which total nearly $3 trillion in appropriated funds — are affecting the economy before passing new legislation.
He noted that President Trump endorsed his approach at a meeting with the Senate Republican Conference on Tuesday afternoon.
Yet the calls from vulnerable senators to take action are likely to be heard by McConnell, who is focused on keeping the Senate in GOP hands.
Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), a member of the Senate GOP leadership, said the next Senate relief bill could pass in June under an “optimistic” scenario and predicted it would likely have to pass by the August recess, which is scheduled to begin Aug. 8.
“Optimistically, we might move before the Fourth of July but I don’t know that we move that quick. I do think that we move on a phase four before the August break,” he said.
Blunt said he has heard from hotel owners and restaurant industry representatives pleading for help from Congress.
“They’re in big trouble,” he said. “One estimate of, I think, the National Restaurant Association is that 20 percent of the restaurants that closed will not reopen and 20 percent of the restaurants that try to reopen six months later will not have been able to successfully do that.”
“I just talked to someone today running a 900-room hotel in St. Louis that had eight guests last night. I talked to somebody yesterday that has a 700-room hotel in Kansas City that had seven guests one night, the night before I was talking to them,” he said.
He also joined Wicker in calling for the next relief package to include a significant infrastructure spending component.
“Personally, I’d like to see infrastructure,” he said. “If we’re going to have to spend money to reignite the economy, I’d prefer to spend it on something that has long-term benefit.”
“And I’ve had people from the auto industry tell me that they thought infrastructure spending would help sell cars and trucks. I’ve had people in the travel industry tell me that they thought” an infrastructure package would be helpful, Blunt added.
One thing that doesn’t appear to be factoring into the GOP decisionmaking process is the $3 trillion relief bill passed by House Democrats last week.
Wicker said Senate Republicans aren’t feeling any pressure to take action because of that bill, which he called “outlandish,” but he acknowledged Powell’s words have influence.
Wicker said Congress needs to “tweak” aid that was given to airlines in the $2.2 trillion CARES Act, as well as the $669 billion appropriated for small businesses in the Paycheck Protection Program.
“We need to look long-term at the defense industrial base and we need to seriously consider putting part of the infrastructure bill in the next phase because those are real jobs, at the end of the day you have a real asset for the money,” he added.