A fresh bipartisan effort to swiftly pass a coronavirus relief package has proved considerable progress on Capitol Hill in recent weeks, after months of a partisan deadlock among top congressional leaders that resulted in no aid and a haggard economy.
The bipartisan push is the most recent attempt to get real stimulus into the pockets of millions of Americans. It is an initiative that’s taken less than a month to roll out, while top congressional leaders like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) didn’t talk for months, despite a trio of seething crises that struck the United States over the summer.
At the beginning of last week, there was much uncertainty about whether the country would see another round of federal relief before the new year, but fast forward to Friday, and the United States, including struggling unemployed Americans and shuttered small businesses, could get real aid by Christmas.
Pelosi cited the bipartisan progress as “momentum” from both sides of the aisle, as there is a urgency to pump federal funds into the economy with the country experiencing record-highs in coronavirus cases, deaths and hospitalizations.
“There is momentum,” Pelosi told reporters last week. “I am pleased that the tone of our conversation is one that is indicative of the decision to get the job done.”
Democratic and Republican lawmakers collaborated to work through the package’s language over the weekend, negotiating and crafting the liability protections section, state and local government funding and finalizing aid through the Paycheck Protection Program. The $908 billion coronavirus stimulus proposal—a spending bill that nearly doubles McConnell’s price tag of $500 billion and splits the House Democratic multi-trillion-dollar bill in half—is expected to be released early this week.
Optimism regarding the bill has radiated from top congressional Democrats, as Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) offered their support for the proposal last week. That approval signaled a huge concession with the intent to push White House negotiators and GOP Senators to finally strike a deal.
The negotiating table hasn’t seen this much progress in months, since both Pelosi and McConnell’s teams had pinned the blame for stalled negotiations on the other. The lack of a stimulus has slowed down a smooth economic recovery as most of the CARES Act relief dried out. Decreased federal aid to help small businesses, unemployed Americans and those in poverty was causing alarm as the economy once again began to sputter.
Pelosi and the Democratic House passed two multi-trillion-dollar proposals in recent months—but both were rejected by top White House aides and Senate Republicans due to the massive cost. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin shot back with a GOP counter-offer of a $1.8 trillion package that embraced some Democratic provisions but that also got blocked.
So, if Capitol Hill’s leaders couldn’t reach across the aisle to negotiate during a pandemic that’s infected nearly fifteen million Americans, what’s changed?
“Congressional leaders tend to focus on partisan advantage, particularly during the run up to a hotly contested election,” Jason Grumet, founder and president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, said. “With the election resolved and critical programs set to expire, Congress is more motivated and capable of reaching agreements.”
Twelve million Americans could lose their unemployment insurance by the year’s end if Congress doesn’t compromise since relief from key programs from the CARES Act in March will be completely depleted.
Robert Y. Shapiro, a professor and former chair of the Department of Political Science at Columbia University, also suggested that there is “added pressure” due to the strained economy and that there might be some partisan intentions.
“For one there is added pressure given the more dire virus situation and evidence that the economy is not recovering and could get worse quickly,” Shapiro said. “Second, the Democrats want to start providing this assistance now so that Biden will not have to push for that much more of an assistance package later.”
He added, “The Republicans are under pressure since they may be perceived as handling the crisis badly and that could have later consequences for them if they look insensitive to national needs.”
Michael C. Munger, professor of political science at Duke University, also ascribed some of the stimulus advancement to simmered “party discipline” that’s eroded after President Donald Trump’s defeat.
“Rats know when the ship is sinking. Trump didn’t just lose the election, he looked ridiculous doing it, for many centrists. Party discipline broke down, and some Republicans, not most, but enough, quietly announced they would vote for the relief bill,” Munger said.
But while bipartisan lawmakers have expressed optimism about the package, negotiators say it will ultimately come down to McConnell’s decision. The majority leader has shown interest in the package but continues to boast his own plan, threatening real progress in the bipartisan effort past the negotiating stage.
“I’m optimistic we’re going to get somewhere,” McConnell told reporters on Monday. “But I have no report at the moment about how.”
McConnell’s top priority is a liability shield granted to businesses for coronavirus-related lawsuits, and most Republicans have clashed with the six-month moratorium offered in the bipartisan framework, as it’s too limited and doesn’t provide enough security. The disagreement has likely hindered the bill’s ability to gain McConnell’s support.
“Congress may not be able to compromise,” Munger warned, without the majority leader’s endorsement.
So, while there’s been progress, Congress might circle back to a partisan stalemate if McConnell doesn’t budge.
“Speaker Pelosi and Leader McConnell have been deeply involved [in] establishing the parameters of the pending debate. However, congressional productivity would increase next year if Committees and bipartisan groups of legislators are given greater opportunity to drive pragmatic agreements that focus more on the needs of working families and less on partisan advantage,” Grumet said.
Rachel Bucchino is a reporter at the National Interest. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report and The Hill.