Senate votes down McConnell-backed coronavirus bill on party lines

Democrats blocked a GOP coronavirus relief bill in a disputed Senate vote Thursday, leaving the two parties without a clear path to approving new economic stimulus before the November elections.

The vote, 52-47, was short of the 60 votes that would have been needed for the measure to advance. Democrats were united in opposing the legislation; all Republicans voted in favor except Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.

For Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., wrangling a majority of the Senate behind the legislation constituted a measure of success after months when Senate Republicans have been divided. But next steps—if any—toward the kind of bipartisan deal that would be needed to pass a bill to provide new benefits to the public were unclear.

Negotiations between congressional Democrats and administration officials collapsed in August and have not restarted. Lawmakers from both major political parties did not close the door to future talks, but they also did not appear ready to relaunch negotiations.

The Senate vote comes amid pleas from Federal Reserve officials and others who have said more fiscal assistance is needed to prevent the economy from sliding further this year. Many of the benefits approved by Congress in the $2 trillion Cares Act in March have run out. Enhanced unemployment benefits expired July 31, and $1,200 stimulus checks largely have been spent. About 29 million Americans received some type of jobless aid last week, new Labor Department data shows, and large parts of the economy remain strained.

Executive actions President Donald Trump took last month to try to substitute for congressional inaction are petering out. A Federal Emergency Management Agency fund Trump tapped to provide additional unemployment insurance benefits is depleting rapidly.

“The needs must be met,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Thursday. “We need every penny in order to stop this.”

The GOP bill that was defeated Thursday contained new money for small businesses, coronavirus testing and schools, and $300 weekly enhanced unemployment benefits to replace a $600 weekly benefit that expired July 31 for about 30 million jobless workers. The measure included about $650 billion in total spending, but it would repurpose roughly $350 billion in previously approved spending, bringing the tally of new funding to about $300 billion.

The measure did not include a second round of $1,200 stimulus checks for individual Americans, even though that’s something the White House supports. It also excluded any new money for cities and states, a top Democratic priority, as municipal governments face the prospect of mass layoffs because of plunging tax revenue. And it contained some conservative priorities that Democrats dismissed as unacceptable, including liability protections for businesses and a tax credit aimed at helping students attend private schools.

After Republican senators refused to rally around a $1 trillion bill McConnell released in July, he designed the new measure to attract the support of as many of his members as possible. That included a significant group that has been reluctant to spend any more money after Congress dedicated $3 trillion to economic relief in the spring. At the same time, McConnell was balancing the needs of vulnerable GOP incumbents who are eager to vote on new aid for their constituents as they campaign for reelection.

Democrats contended that the legislation, written without Democratic input, was designed to fail and intended only to give the GOP cover for inaction. Republicans argued that Democrats were refusing to agree to any new relief because they did not want to help Trump or bolster the fragile economic recovery before the election.

“Working families have suffered and waited and wondered whether Washington Democrats really care more about hurting President Trump than helping them through this crisis,” McConnell said on the Senate floor before the vote.

McConnell also expressed indignation about a comment made Wednesday by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who said “Republicans are the enemy of the good” when asked whether Democrats had allowed the perfect to become the enemy of the good in coronavirus talks.

“The Americans we represent, however they vote, know that Republicans aren’t our enemies, and Democrats aren’t our enemies,” McConnell said. “The coronavirus is the enemy.”

In his own floor remarks, Schumer kept up his attacks on the GOP legislation and on McConnell, whom he has labeled the “secretary of cynicism.” Schumer noted that Republicans waited months to try to restart negotiations after House Democrats passed a sweeping $3.4 trillion bill in May that included generous new benefits for individuals and money for testing and vaccines.

“Republicans dithered and delayed. They pushed their chips in with President Trump’s lot and hoped the virus would miraculously disappear and everything would be all better,” Schumer said.

He said the bill defeated Thursday was “a fairly transparent attempt to show the Republicans are doing something when, in fact, they want to do nothing in reality.”

Pelosi and Schumer held out hope that failure of the bill would be followed by a new round of bipartisan negotiations despite absence of signs that that is happening.

“I still have some hope once this bill is defeated, if past is prologue, there’s actually a significant chance that the public heat on many Republican senators as they go back home will have them come to their senses, and they’ll start negotiating with us in a serious way,” Schumer said.

Government funding is set to expire at the end of the fiscal year, Sept. 30. Lawmakers are in talks on a bill that would extend government spending at existing levels through the election, though they have not agreed on how long it will last.

In the absence of new bipartisan talks on a coronavirus relief bill, some senators and aides speculated this week that Congress will move quickly to pass the short-term “continuing resolution,” then adjourn so lawmakers can return home to campaign for reelection.

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