Senate Republicans shrug off Trump’s call for larger Covid-19 relief measure

Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) warned Wednesday that the bigger the price tag for any relief package, the more difficult it would be to get Senate Republicans on board.

“If the number gets too high, anything that got passed in the Senate will be passed mostly with Democrat votes and a handful of Republicans so it’s gonna have to stay within a realistic range if we want to maximize, optimize the number of Republican senators that will vote for it,” Thune said.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) also seemed skeptical Republicans would support a $1.5 trillion package. “We’d have to see what’s in it, but I think it’s difficult,” he said.

But Democratic congressional leaders, who had come under pressure from moderate House Democrats to push for additional federal funding, immediately seized on the president’s tweet. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), in particular, had faced growing unrest from her most vulnerable members to take action. Trump’s tweet, however, shifted the focus back to Republicans, at least for the moment.

“We are encouraged that after months of the Senate Republicans insisting on shortchanging the massive needs of the American people, President Trump is now calling on Republicans to ‘go for the much higher numbers’ in the next coronavirus relief package,” Pelosi and Schumer said in a joint statement. “We look forward to hearing from the President’s negotiators that they will finally meet us halfway.”

The overall amount of a new coronavirus relief package has been a key sticking point in negotiations between Democratic leaders and the White House. Democrats are now pushing for a lower $2.2 trillion proposal, while Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, a top negotiator, signaled the White House would be open to going up to $1.5 trillion.

Nearly the entire Senate GOP caucus voted in favor last week of a roughly $650 billion coronavirus relief package, with $300 billion in new spending. The measure, which Democrats blocked, would have provided $300 in boosted weekly unemployment benefits through December, another round of money for the Paycheck Protection Program and liability protections, a key priority for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

When asked about Trump’s tweet Wednesday, Senate Republicans highlighted the so-called “skinny” bill as the caucus’ position.

“I think that was a marker that was put out there,” said Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.). “I think politically the president still benefits from maybe asking for more but I think that was pretty clear that that was voted upon by 52 senators … you’d lose a bunch of fiscal conservatives if you did anything other than what we voted on for last week.” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) was the only Republican in the caucus to vote against advancing the measure.

“We did the right thing,” added. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). “The president has his opinion, we have ours.”

Some Republicans, however, are holding out hope that a deal can be reached before lawmakers head home in early October to campaign ahead of the November election.

The House Problem Solvers caucus on Tuesday released a bipartisan, roughly $2 trillion coronavirus relief package that includes $500 billion for state and local government, a problematic provision for most Senate Republicans. Pelosi has also rejected calls to negotiate a measure smaller than $2.2 trillion proposal.

White House chief of staff Mark Meadows spoke positively Wednesday of the Problem Solvers proposal, which he described as “very thoughtful” and “very meaningful if you’re looking at Republicans and Democrats coming together in a bipartisan way.”

“They don’t speak for this speaker,” Meadows added. “I think she’s been very clear about that in the last 12 hours. But if it provides a foundation where there’s really a desire to do a deal, we’re encouraged by that.”

Despite the months of partisan gridlock, some Senate Republicans insist an agreement is still possible.

“I think there’s a deal to be had here,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). “ My concern is that the window probably closes at the end of this month and we need to get busy finding out what we can all agree on. And I think the number is going to be higher than our trillion dollars.”