Senate Republicans are growing increasingly frustrated with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin as he makes what they see as unacceptable compromises in his quest for a stimulus deal with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, multiple people familiar with the talks said Thursday.
Mnuchin has already committed to a top-line figure of around $1.9 trillion, much too high for many Senate Republicans to swallow. This includes at least $300 billion for state and local aid, also a non-starter for many in the GOP.
The Treasury secretary is also giving ground on multiple specific policy issues, for example reducing payments that Republicans wanted to go to farmers so that some of the money would go for food boxes instead, according to two people involved in the talks who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the developments. He has left open the possibility of allowing even more money to flow to states and localities via Community Development Block Grants sought by Democrats.
“He negotiates harder with his own side than he does with her. Folks over here are sick of it,” said one Senate GOP aide, who added that Republicans were “reaching boiling point with him” as Mnuchin “gives and gives and gives and gets nothing in return.”
Another Senate GOP aide said: “Fair to say the feeling is he’s giving away the store. No one is surprised, but yes frustrated. The idea that our conference is going to go along with whatever bad deal he cuts with Pelosi is completely unrealistic.”
A spokesperson for Mnuchin had no immediate comment.
The complaints come as Pelosi, D-Calif., voices optimism about her ongoing talks with Mnuchin, making clear that she believes she has leverage because President Donald Trump wants a big new deal with less than two weeks remaining until the election.
“The president wants a bill. The president wants a bill. And so that’s part of the opportunity that we have,” Pelosi told reporters Thursday.
She said she and Mnuchin had just about come to terms on a national coronavirus testing strategy Democrats have been pushing. But Pelosi acknowledged that other major issues were still unsettled, including aid to state and local governments and liability protections for businesses sought by Republicans.
Pelosi has expressed the desire to pass a bill before the election, but made clear Thursday that she was not wedded to that timeline if she does not get what she wants.
“We wouldn’t take less of a bill to get it sooner,” Pelosi said. “We want the best bill.”
Senate Republicans have already made their opposition to a big new spending bill abundantly clear—and yet Mnuchin continues to negotiate and make concessions, giving rise to the new round of complaints. Mnuchin is caught between a president who’s demanded that he “bring home the bacon,” and Republican lawmakers who oppose more pork.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., disclosed earlier this week that he had advised the White House against making a pre-election deal with Pelosi, partly because it could interfere with the Senate’s confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. The majority leader held a conference call with Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows a couple of weeks ago where GOP senators vented their opposition to some of the elements Mnuchin and Pelosi were discussing, including expanding Affordable Care Act tax credits and sending stimulus checks to undocumented immigrants.
Instead of the big new spending bill the president wants, McConnell tried to advance a much smaller approximately $500 billion bill on the Senate floor Wednesday, but Democrats blocked it. The McConnell bill contained money for schools, health care systems, the unemployed and more, but omitted a new round of $1,200 checks to individuals—a major priority for Trump.
Pelosi said Thursday that Senate GOP opposition to what she and Mnuchin are working on is not her problem.
“I can’t answer for the disarray on the other side,” she said. “It’s up to him [Trump] to deliver what can happen on the Senate side.”
Senate Republican Whip John Thune, R-S.D., has said publicly it would be difficult to get 13 Senate Republicans to support a deal along the lines of what Pelosi and Mnuchin are discussing. That’s the bare minimum that would be needed to pass such legislation if all Democrats voted in favor.
Privately, multiple Senate GOP aides said getting 13 GOP votes for a big bill brokered by Pelosi and Mnuchin simply could not happen.
“There are not 13 votes for this pile of crap Mnuchin is capitulating on,” said a third Senate GOP aide familiar with the discussions.
McConnell has said that if Pelosi and Mnuchin get a deal and it passes the House with Trump’s support, he would bring it up for a vote in the Senate—but has not said when he would do so.
Senate Republicans have long been skeptical of Mnuchin’s approach in negotiations with Democrats, including in the spring when he helped negotiate four bills totaling an unprecedented $3 trillion that in retrospect some Republicans think went too far.
But Trump’s approach in the talks has been inconsistent, and it’s not at all clear that even if Pelosi and Mnuchin were to strike a deal, that Trump would or could bring Senate Republicans along. The president has said Republicans would fall in line, but he himself has veered between calling off talks and demanding more money than even Democrats proposed.
On Wednesday evening, Trump seemed to write the whole effort off in a pair of Twitter posts where he lamented, “Just don’t see any way Nancy Pelosi and Cryin’ Chuck Schumer will be willing to do what is right.”
Conservatives off Capitol Hill are watching the process play out with something akin to horror.
Former Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who served as president of the conservative Heritage Foundation, said there was widespread trepidation among conservative senators about the emerging Mnuchin-Pelosi package. Many Republicans both on Capitol Hill and in the White House regularly refer to Mnuchin as a Democrat behind his back.
“They don’t feel like [Mnuchin] is negotiating for them, and certainly not for conservatives. The consensus is he’s trying to get something done. And to get something done with Nancy Pelosi will require something most of us will not feel good about,” DeMint said.
Jason Pye, vice president for legislative affairs for the conservative-leaning FreedomWorks, said he spoke to several Republican congressional offices on Thursday who expressed alarm about the package, including billions for the U.S. postal services and state and local governments.
“Members have no idea what’s going on and they’re very worried about Mnuchin going too far and putting together a package they can’t vote for. They don’t trust Mnuchin. There’s hardly any trust there because they don’t think he’s a conservative. They think he’s at best a moderate Democrat,” Pye said.
Pye added GOP lawmakers in particular do not trust Mnuchin to press for a lower unemployment benefit than the $600 per week benefit pushed by Democrats: “They don’t trust Mnuchin to fight on that because he’s caving on almost everything else.”
Liam Donovan, a Republican political strategist, said that there’s “broad frustration” among GOP lawmakers over the emerging package. “There are zero policy wins in here for Rs, just swallowing slightly watered-down Heroes,” Donovan said, citing provisions related to taxpayer-funded abortions as well as the potential expansion of Affordable Care Act credits. The Heroes Act is the multi-trillion-dollar relief bill passed by the House.
Even among conservatives, however, there is resignation that Mnuchin has been empowered by Trump and there is little to be done about the president’s bipartisan negotiator.
“There are concerns about the direction inside the White House but at the end of day Mnuchin takes direction from president,” said one GOP aide, granted anonymity to share internal thinking.