On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced that he would be calling for a vote on a piece of coronavirus relief legislation. While it may seem like a step forward after a long summer of increasing COVID-19 infection rates and no congressional action, the bill McConnell's proposing doesn't really make Republicans or Democrats happy. Moreover, the scope of the bill falls well below earlier proposals from both sides of the aisle and would absorb little of the economic shock almost everyone in the U.S. feels as a result of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
The proposed legislation, which has a price tag of roughly $500 billion, includes enhanced relief payments and forgivable loans for small businesses, as well as some child care support and protection for businesses against coronavirus-related lawsuits. In a statement, McConnell said, "Today, the Senate Republican majority is introducing a new targeted proposal, focused on some of the very most urgent health care, education, and economic issues. It does not contain every idea our party likes. I am confident Democrats will feel the same. Yet Republicans believe the many serious differences between our two parties should not stand in the way of agreeing where we can agree and making law that helps our nation."
McConnell's move means the bill could hit the floor for a vote as soon as Thursday. Per the Associated Press, the bill includes $105 billion for school reopening assistance, $31 billion toward developing a vaccine, $20 billion for farmers, and $10 billion for post office debt. It would also stipulate an extra $300 per week in unemployment relief, half the amount allotted by an expansion under the CARES Act that expired at the end of July.
Even though McConnell positioned the legislation as benefiting "our nation," his statement was directly pointed at Democratic leaders like Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, and Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader. McConnell called out the Democrats' reluctance to sign legislation offered by Republicans (a $1 trillion package proposed in July and further legislation in August, both of which fell well short of Democratic demands) as negligent, saying, "They have taken Americans’ health, jobs, and schools hostage for perceived partisan gain."
In a statement from the two leaders, Pelosi and Schumer rebuked the accusation, saying that the McConnell proposal "doesn’t come close to addressing the problems and is headed nowhere." The Republican legislation doesn't include direct stimulus checks like those enacted through the CARES Act, nor does it contain funds for local and state governments in need of support after months of digging into their rainy-day funds to tackle the virus — not to mention that it slashes unemployment benefits in half.
Because Republicans have already had the opportunity to vote on coronavirus relief put forth by Democrats, Pelosi and Schumer argue that it's McConnell who's playing politics, not them. "This emaciated bill is only intended to help vulnerable Republican senators ... [and] doesn’t want to spend a nickel to help people," the two said, referring to GOP incumbents in tight re-election races who might benefit from more coronavirus relief hitting their constituents.
In the end, the forced vote on the coronavirus relief package is as much of a political move as legislative action. McConnell wants to force Democrats to show their hand by proposing a relief package that they'll surely vote against, which he can use to paint Democrats unwilling to compromise on legislation at Americans' expense. But if Democrats vote in favor of the legislation, there are other political and legislative consequences: First, it would give Republicans and President Trump a leg-up heading into November's election by allowing GOP members to campaign on having successfully ushered legislation through a polarized Congress; second, Democrats have one chance to get this right, and voting yes on McConnell's stripped-down bill means that they're agreeing to paltry relief conditions for those who most need it.
All of this begs the question: Is some legislation better than none? Taxpayers do need help, and fast, and if the past few months are an indication of future congressional behavior, it looks like elected officials might have this one shot to get something done. Whether that something will be fulfilling for anyone, though, is much less clear.