As federal benefits to those out of work and in pain due to COVID-19 are set to soon expire, Senate Republicans are splitting with each other and with the Trump Administration on what should be in the next federal stimulus package.
CNN reports that Senate Republicans are divided over what should be included in their proposal for a COVID-19 relief bill, with some being opposed to the proposals of the White House. Among other issues on which the Senate Republican Conference is divided, the chief three are potential payroll tax cuts, conditioned funding for schools, and increased funding for COVID-19 testing and contact tracing.
The key distinction between many senators and the Trump Administration is on whether a payroll tax cut or a second round of stimulus checks would do more to boost the faltering economy, which, as of June 2020, sees an unemployment rate of 11.1%. Prior to COVID-19, the unemployment rate had not eclipsed 10% since the height of the Great Recession in October 2010.
As reported by News Landed on July 9, President Trump was originally in favor of a second round of stimulus checks in the upcoming relief package. However, his tone has since soured on the idea, becoming less favorable to direct payments, and more favorable to a payroll tax cut. Payroll taxes are those that fund services, including social security and Medicare, amongst other things. For this reason, many senators are worried a payroll tax cut may be disastrous for the public image of the Republican Party in what is shaping up to be a potentially brutal election year.
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Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, is the most senior Republican in the Senate and serves as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Grassley is skeptical of the potential benefits of a payroll tax cut, recently telling reporters it would have little impact on the economy compared to direct payments to disadvantaged workers. Grassley was also quick to enumerate that cutting the payroll tax may cause a “public relations problem,” as it may be seen by the public as Congress and the President raiding funds for social security.
Sen. John Cornyn, of Texas, who served as the No. 2 Republican in the Senate until 2019, is in a particularly tough situation. Cornyn faces re-election this year against Afghanistan War veteran M.J. Hegar in what is quickly becoming a swing state. Cornyn, who has long tried to strike a balance within his Conference, told reporters that, in the face of COVID-19 and steep election odds, the Republican Conference is unusually divided. Cornyn’s dilemma represents one may face this year: how do republicans address the needs of their constituents properly without breaking from the leader of their party in an election year?
Cornyn’s successor as Republican Deputy Leader, John Thune of South Dakota, has opted to side with those like Sen. Grassley on the matter of economic stimulus, saying “I think if you want to get something out of it for the economy, [direct payments] make a lot more sense.” Meanwhile, President Trump told FOX News on Sunday that he “would consider not signing [a relief package] if we don’t have a payroll tax cut.”
Sen. Thune also let loose his position on another key issue of disagreement: tying school funding to reopening. Thune said Monday, “I think it’s better to let the school districts and local officials decide what’s best… The circumstances are very different.”
Top Republican senators spent Monday and Tuesday in meetings with White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, mostly focusing on school funding. The results of these talks remain unknown, though President Trump has firmly spoken in favor of fully reopening schools in the Fall, opposing CDC guidelines. Trump has repeatedly advocated for cutting funding to schools that opt not to reopen in the face of continued records of COVID-19 cases in states across the nation.
The final major topic of disagreement, providing funds to the CDC for additional testing and contact tracing, has emphasized a fundamental difference of opinion between Trump and his party in the Senate. Monday, Senators Susan Collins of Maine, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana (all republicans facing re-election) stressed to reporters their belief that increased funding for testing is essential to combat COVID-19. Sen. Alexander concurred separately, saying, “we should fund testing as generously as it needs to be.”
These stances from a number of Republican senators differ from that of the White House, who believes that the CDC should not get funding for contact tracing and testing. This comes as Trump is actively trying to decrease testing across the nation, saying that increased testing for Covid-19 causes inflated numbers of positive cases reported. Last month, NBC News reported that the Trump administration planned to end federal funding of 13 COVID-19 testing sites, a majority of which are in disease-ridden Texas.
With an election on the horizon that polls continuously show Trump losing by double-digit margins, and when many Senators in once safely Republican states now faced damaged election odds due to a pandemic out of control, every move the Senate Republican Conference makes over the proceeding 100 days must be carefully calculated- managing to please democrats empowered in the House of Representatives, a president in the White House with ballooning unpopularity, and an American public yearning to vote in the midst of the worst economic crisis seen in America in nearly a century.
The fate of a potential economic stimulus package from the Senate is uncertain at best. The only certainty is the growing independence of the Senate Republican Conference from the reigns of the White House.
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