McConnell hints at more coronavirus aid for states in future rescue package

Does COVID deal signal a kinder, gentler McConnell who can work with Biden? Many Democrats are skeptical

McConnell hints at more coronavirus aid for states in future rescue package

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell congratulated president-elect Joe Biden on winning the presidency. USA TODAY

Hours after congressional leaders clinched a deal Sunday on a $900 billion coronavirus relief package, President-elect Joe Biden suggested the legislation was “just the beginning” of what was needed to help Americans suffering amid the pandemic.

He urged lawmakers to start work in the new year on further steps to ease the economic pain. “There will be no time to waste,” he said. 

One person who signaled openness to the conversation was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. While he did not commit to a fresh round of stimulus in 2021, McConnell said he would work with the incoming Biden administration if he believes further economic relief is needed.

“My view about what comes next is let's take a look at it. I'm happy to evaluate that based upon the needs we confront in February and March,” McConnell told reporters on a conference call. “We'll be happy to talk about it. I don't rule it out or rule it in.”

Lawmakers ended months of gridlock with the passage Monday of a bipartisan COVID relief package, with McConnell working with Democratic leaders to hammer out the details of a bill that includes $600 stimulus checks, enhanced unemployment benefits and help for businesses hit by the fall the pandemic.

The measure is already being pickedapart by liberal and conservatives critics who didn't get everything they wanted.

But the real question is whether the breakthrough is an anomaly, driven by an economic and health emergency as the Senate's majority still hangs in the balance, or a sign that McConnell and his GOP allies are ready to cooperate on other big-ticket issues with Biden, who made bipartisanship and consensus a central part of his 2020 election campaign to win the White House.

The fate of Biden's agenda will depend in part on the outcome of Georgia's two Jan. 5 Senate run-off contests, which will determine whether Republicans or Democrats control the chamber next year. But no matter how those two races go, the Senate will be narrowly divided when Biden takes office.

How the deal came together: Talks over a pasta dinner and Zoom rescued the COVID relief package

Much has been made about McConnell and Biden's longstanding relationship.

In his statement on the $900 billion deal, Biden said it could be a “model for the challenging work ahead for our nation.”

Biden's call for bipartisanship in 2021 was also endorsed by McConnell, who recalled their past successful negotiations during former President Barack Obama's administration.

“We're going to have divided government – I hope – after the special in Georgia but even if the Democrats were to be successful, a 50-50 Senate has bipartisan written all over it,” McConnell said.

Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) talks to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) after leaving the Senate Floor at the U.S. Capitol on December 21, 2020 in Washington, DC. The House and Senate approved a roughly $900 billion pandemic relief bill to bolster the U.S. economy. (Photo: Cheriss May, Getty Images)

House Budget Chairman John Yarmuth, a Democrat who also hails from the Bluegrass State, has known McConnell for decades. He said the COVID relief package that Congress tackled in the final weeks of this year came about because Republicans were backed into a corner after ignoring House Democrats' proposal to help Americans cope with the current crisis for months.

Yarmuth said nothing about the recent rescue package should give Democrats confidence McConnell will cooperate with Biden any more than he did with former President Barack Obama.

“I would be a fool to think that,” he said.

Despite reaching agreement with Republicans on the relief package, Democratic lawmakers remain wary of McConnell, who will be the most powerful Republican once President Donald Trump leaves office Jan. 20.

Biden spokesman T.J. Ducklo said Biden's win in November demonstrated his appeal to Americans across the political spectrum who want Washington to work again.

“Just in the past few weeks, he's spoken to a number of Republican senators and members of Congress and met with bipartisan groups of mayors and governors to talk about how we're going to pull the country crisis,” Ducklo said.

McConnell's allies emphasize that he and Biden have a rare comfort level with each other after a decades-long working relationship in the Senate that continued when Biden served as vice president.

The Senate Republican leader's allies also said the COVID package showed McConnell's effectiveness as a Washington dealmaker.

“Nothing happened until McConnell decided to lean in and that's not by accident,” Republican lobbyist Billy Piper, a former McConnell chief of staff, told USA Today in an interview.

“The thing about Mitch McConnell, he knows the last chapter of the book before most people are through chapter one, and I think people are frustrated by that.”

The Biden-McConnell history: Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell are friends who have brokered deals in the past 

Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, left, and Vice President Biden may negotiate key pieces of legislation more often after Republicans take charge of the Senate next year and McConnell becomes majority leader. (Photo: Michael Reynolds, European Pressphoto Agency)

Circumstances will dictate when it makes sense for the two parties to meet in the middle on big issues such as infrastructure or future COVID measures, Piper said, but he added that it's obvious McConnell prioritizes keeping the Senate in Republicans hands.

“It is fair to say one of McConnell's guiding principles is making sure the Senate is not only acting in the best interest of the country, but doing so in a way that helps his Republicans get reelected or find other Republicans to get elected,” Piper said. “He's not shy to admit he believes a center-right Senate is in the best interest of the country.”

But McConnell brushed aside suggestions when asked by reporters about how much, if at all, the Georgia races were a part of his thinking. He complimented Biden, saying his public backing of the COVID relief deal helped to boost momentum for it.

McConnell’s 'endurance' paid off

Congress had been paralyzed over a relief package for months after passing the initial $2 trillion CARES Act in March.

Less than two months later, House Democrats passed a heftier $3 trillion proposal called the HEROES Act as a starting point for new talks, but McConnell quickly rejected that as too costly.

Over the summer, McConnell held a wait-and-see approach on whether additional fiscal help was needed, saying lawmakers should determine how the original relief package affectedthe crisis. In campaign stops, he regularly touted the benefits of the legislation on states Kentucky.

Trump administration officials and House Democrats at one point discussed a $1.8 trillion plan. When that effort fizzled, McConnell touted a smaller compromise that focused on funding for testing, schools and the unemployed.

Republican consultant Josh Holmes, who previously served in McConnell's office, suggested a horse trade in a Dec. 11 tweet between the two sides, with Republicans setting aside their priority of liability protections for businesses if Democrats would relinquish their demands for federal help for states and localities.

“I really don't understand why (that) isn't a universally accepted legislative path to coronavirus relief at this stage,” he tweeted. “Everything else is just noise.”

Both proposals were left the bill passed Monday.

Piper said McConnell’s strength as a negotiator is “a willingness to endure,” even in the face of withering criticisms.

“By that I mean he understands that negotiations take time and negotiations frequently involve lull periods and he’s utterly comfortable with that. He knows at the right time the pressure will get to the point where all sides are willing to come to the table.”

The final COVID relief package includes renewing the Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses; funding for vaccine development and distribution; renewing robust unemployment benefits; and $600 in direct stimulus payments to individuals.

McConnell did have to give up temporary liability protections for corporations, schools and other organizations, but he got his way in other areas, such as limiting relief funds for state and local governments.

McConnell suggested the impasse over the two issues could give way to compromise at some point. The GOP leader said he hasn't given up on temporary immunity for businesses and other groups from liability during the pandemic.

“I think the country simply is not going to be able to get back to normal without it,” McConnell said.

He predicted Biden would push for aid to cities and states in any future COVID relief proposal he puts forward.

“I'll bet you state and local is in it,” he added, “and to the extent that I'm involved in the negotiations, and I think I will be, I'm going to be taking the same view about the necessity of liability reform protection.”

Biden's must use bully pulpit

Many progressive Democrats remain irateat McConnell.

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., blamed the Senate Republican leader for the inclusion in the latest legislation of a tax break for corporate meal expenses, a provision derided as the “three martini” deduction.

“It’s infuriating to negotiate with a soulless, greedy monster Mitch (McConnell),” she said.

Democrats have long expressed frustration with McConnell for thwarting President Barack Obama's legislative agenda, including refusing to hold a hearing or vote on the nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court.

“I don't think we can count on Mitch McConnell being ready to make a deal on January 21 if he still holds that gavel,” Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich., told USA TODAY.

But Levin was hopeful President-elect Biden would be able to leverage his relationships with the Senate to become  “the greatest president at dealing with the Senate since Lyndon Johnson.” 

“That's what America needs right now,” he said. “And I am very hopeful that he can be because he loves the institution.” 

President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in the Oval Office at the White House, February 1, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 607792223 ORIG FILE ID: 513191888 (Photo: Mark Wilson, Getty Images)

Other Democrats outside Washington say it is unwise for Biden to think he can coax McConnell into working with him their past relationship, or to think this COVID deal is a sign of more GOP compromise to come.

“Republicans are seeing the need for some movement for relief and that's a sticky widget,” Democratic consultant Jason Perkey said.

“Mitch McConnell doesn't do anything that isn't politically calculated and for those purposes.

I don't think he's doing anything for the betterment of the country, but everything he is doing is something to benefit him and the people he works for.”

The pandemic, and how federal officials have responded, remains at the forefront of Georgia's two run-off contests, according to political observers.

Democrats have accused the two Republican incumbents – Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue – of an unwillingness to help Georgians who are unemployed or struggling financially. 

University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock said the new aid package might help blunt Democratic attacks.

“I would assume McConnell knows how close these races are – they're a point or two apart – and one thing Mitch McConnell really s is being majority leader,” he said. “Passing this legislation definitely might help them.”

If Republicans win either of the Peach State races, McConnell would keep a razor-thin 51-49 seat majority. But if Democrats prevail in both contests, Schumer will become majority leader of a 50-50 chamber in which Vice President-elect Kamala Harris casts the tie-breaking vote.

Yarmuth, the House budget leader, said it's clear McConnell will get along better with Biden personally than he did with Obama, but that doesn't change how political gamesmanship will drive McConnell's strategy if the Senate remains in GOP hands.

Instead of expecting McConnell to change, Democrats are hoping Biden will be more forceful than Obama was. The first test will be if the president-elect is willing to use the bully pulpit against his former colleague.

“Obama didn't get out and take Mitch on about a lot of this stuff, and I think Biden will,” Yarmuth said. “He's going to be very outspoken, I think, about pushing his agenda. Mitch needs to get put on spot, and Obama never did it.”

McConnell reminded reporters on Monday that the two negotiated three deals during when Biden, who served as vice president, was the White House point-person for several big negotiations on Capitol Hill during the Obama administration.

Asked if he expects that line of communication for future negotiations will continue through aides or with Biden directly, McConnell said their past relationship will make connecting easier.

“We're accustomed to each other,” McConnell said. “On the other hand he's got a pretty big job. We'll see how that works out.”

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McConnell, GOP Lawmakers, Worried About Price Tag, Pump The Brakes On A Fourth Stimulus Bill

McConnell hints at more coronavirus aid for states in future rescue package

Updated Apr 23, 2020, 02:08pm EDT

Despite trillions of dollars in aid, the economy is still reeling from the effects of the coronavirus outbreak, but as attention now turns to passing a fourth major stimulus package that could carry another steep price tag, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and fellow GOP lawmakers are hedging, citing mounting costs. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) speaks during a news briefing at the U.S. Capitol on … [+] April 21, 2020, in Washington, D.C.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Republicans, who have historically railed against big government spending, have embraced high-dollar stimulus legislation since the outbreak began; Senator Mitt Romney (R-Utah) was the one who initially came out in support of sending direct cash payments to Americans, for instance, and GOP senators joined Democrats to pass the $2 trillion stimulus bill unanimously, 96-0.

This time around, though, some Republicans are sounding the alarm about taking on more debt to pass another stimulus package, which could include everything from additional cash payments for Americans to aid for state and local governments and carry a price tag higher than $2 trillion.

“You’ve seen the talk from both sides about acting, but my goal from the beginning of this, given the extraordinary numbers that we’re racking up to the national debt, is that we need to be as cautious as we can be,” McConnell said to Politico Tuesday, with Senators John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Rick Scott (R-Fla.) echoing the leader’s comments in interviews this week.

Democrats, however, were quick to point out that Republicans have brushed aside worries about borrowing money before, such as when they pushed through the 2017 tax cuts that even GOP leaders later conceded wouldn’t pay for themselves.

“Funny, I don’t remember Majority Leader Mitch McConnell being concerned about deficits when he shoveled billions in tax breaks to his donors,” tweeted Senator Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) on Wednesday in response to McConnell’s comments about the deficit.

Democratic lawmakers had hoped to pack in more state aid to the stopgap bill passed by the Senate on Wednesday, and have come out in strong support of passing additional legislation in the coming weeks.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has been adamant that the latest rescue plan passed by Congress this week cannot be its last: 

“For anyone who thinks this is the last train the station, that is not even close to the case,” Schumer said.

And Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has said Congress will need to “spend what it takes” to stave off a deep recession, but added that lawmakers should still be mindful of the debt.

“On the other hand, I think we are sensitive to the economic impacts of putting on debt, and that’s something that the president is reviewing with us very carefully,” he added. 

Key background

Democrats are particularly keen on providing federal aid to states and local governments hamstrung by the skyrocketing costs of combating the pandemic and falling tax revenue in a next bill. 

McConnell, though, has argued that Congress should think hard before providing money to states to “bail out state pensions” and suggested they should instead think about filing for bankruptcy to relieve costs.

“I would certainly be in favor of allowing states to use the bankruptcy route,” McConnell said in an interview with the conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt. “It saves some cities. And there’s no good reason for it not to be available.”

McConnell has also maintained that he wants the Senate to convene in person on any additional stimulus legislation, which could mean the next package may not pass until June. 

Surprising fact

States do not currently have the ability to file for bankruptcy, as the New York Times NYT reported. 

Chief critic

McConnell’s comments elicited a sharp rebuke from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who said the Leader’s suggestion was “one of the saddest, really dumb comments of all time.”

What to watch for

What Democrats, Trump and some GOP lawmakers push for in the next bill.  Democratic priorities include aid for state and local governments, election reform, housing assistance, funds for the U.S. Postal Service and “hazard pay” for healthcare workers. 

Democrats—and even Trump—have also expressed interest in sending more money to Americans, arguing that the $1,200 cash payments millions received under the last bill aren’t enough.

Trump and Speaker Nancy Pelosi have seemed particularly keen on passing funding for infrastructure projects in the upcoming bill. 

On Tuesday, Trump reiterated his desire for infrastructure investment, calling on Congress to fund projects for “bridges, tunnels, and broadband.”


The economic impact if Congress can’t come to agreement on another stimulus bill. 

Further reading

Mitch McConnell hints he could block the next stimulus package (Vox)

McConnell slams brakes on next round of coronavirus aid (Politico)

More Direct Payments And State And Local Aid: Here’s What Might Be In The Next Stimulus Bill (Forbes)

McConnell Says States Should Consider Bankruptcy, Rebuffing Calls for Aid (New York Times)


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