As Senate takes three-week break, new COVID-19 relief bill unlikely until mid-September

The federal response to COVID-19 takes another frustrating turn

As Senate takes three-week break, new COVID-19 relief bill unlikely until mid-September

First, talks between Democrats and Republicans over the next stage of COVID-19 aid collapsed. Then President Donald Trump issued a series of executive orders aimed at protecting renters and supporting the unemployed that many feel will go nowhere. In light of the dwindling support businesses and out-of-work Americans currently have access to, common sense, as far as it applies to American politics in 2020, should have the leaders of the Senate and House of Representatives tripping over each other to be the first group back to the negotiating table.

Instead, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Thursday sent the Senate home until September 8. Last Monday, the Democrat-led House of Representatives shut down until September 14.

It’s an odd time for the nation’s elected leaders to take an extended holiday. The application deadline for the Paycheck Protection Program expired on August 8. Expanded unemployment benefits petered out more than two weeks ago. Unemployment is still over 10 percent and cases of coronavirus are growing by thousands upon thousands every day. If now isn’t a desperate enough time to put politics aside and actually put together a bill that might keep Americans fed and housed, when is?

Talks have collapsed for several reasons, most of them tied to inherent differences in each party’s philosophy. Compromise is unlikely, at least until it becomes politically beneficial for one side or the other to act. Democrats, confident that Trump is on his way out in November, may not see a political advantage in caving to Republican demands. Republicans, attempting to poke holes in Democrats’ reputation as the heroes of the working class, can accuse the party of failing to come through when their constituents needed them most. Neither are wrong. But in light of the anxiety-ridden situation they have left the country in, neither are right, either.

Democrats and Republicans are still in opposition over the size and scope of the next COVID-19 deal. After already approving a mind-boggling $3 trillion in aid, Republicans are now expressing wariness at approving another batch of relief that exceeds $1 trillion. Democrats are asking for a package of $3.4 to $3.7 trillion, but have indicated a willingness to deal if Republicans up their offer by $1 trillion.

"We are miles apart in our values," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Thursday. "Perhaps you mistook [Republicans] for somebody who gave a damn. That isn't the case. This is very far apart."

White House economic advisor Larry Kudlow said Democrats’ demands for $2 trillion are unacceptable.

“We're not going to give it,” Kudlow said. “There are too many things, too many asks on their side that don't fit, don't have anything to do with COVID, for that matter.”

Here’s where things get gummed-up. Democratic and Republican views on unemployment, school funding, and legal protections for businesses are diametrically opposed at the best of times. Lo and behold, those have become the primary sticking points in the COVID-19 negotiations. Capitulating to the other side’s demands, particularly in D.C.’s noxious political atmosphere, would be seen by party hardliners as treason. Outside of Washington, it’s called compromise.

Trump did his part to further muddy the waters on Thursday when he told Fox Business that he opposes the proposed funding for the U.S. Postal Service contained in the Democrat proposal. The funding, intended to provide safer voting options come election time, has been flagged by Republicans like Kudlow as unacceptable.

"So [many] of the Democratic asks are really liberal, left wish lists – voting rights and aid to aliens and so forth," Kudlow told CNBC. "That's not our game, and the president can't accept that kind of deal."

If Pelosi and fellow negotiators Chuck Schumer, Steven Mnuchin and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows can broker a deal before the House and Senate are scheduled to return, Senators will be given 24 hours’ notice to return to Washington and vote on the new plan.

After a week that saw Pelosi and Mnuchin exchange a single phone call, one whose message Pelosi described as the White House “not budging from their position concerning the size and scope of a legislative package,” it’s safe to say Congress should be able to enjoy the full extent of its holiday.

Enjoy, folks. You’ve really earned it.