Coronavirus bill a monster lift that worries lawmakers on two fronts: ballot box and economy
“Bit by bit. Putting it together.
Piece by piece. Only way to make a work of art.
Every moment makes a contribution.
Every detail plays a part.
Having just a vision’s no solution.
Everything depends on execution.” – “Putting it Together” from “Sunday In the Park With George” by Stephen Sondheim
It probably won’t be a “work of art” if and when….if and when…negotiators ever finalize a coronavirus bill. Those talks seem permanently stalled now after Friday’s meeting on Capitol Hill and President Trump taking executive action in lieu of a legislative agreement on Saturday.
But the words from Sondheim on Broadway echo even in the marble halls of Congress.
Any coronavirus bill this big, this complex, covering almost unprecedented scope, is a monster lift. “Every detail plays a part,” as they say in the song. “Bit by bit.” That’s why an old saw prevails on Capitol Hill when the sides struggle with a complicated bill. “Nothing is decided until everything’s decided.”
And, it all depends on execution.
“There’s still a huge number of differences. I’m not real optimistic that we’re going to get a deal done in the short term,” lamented Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D.
There is now consternation about no bill to combat the pandemic.
“I feel discouragement and desperation,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, heading into a Senate GOP Conference meeting last week with no firm deal within reach on the coronavirus bill. “We don’t have answers for people right now that are really worried.”
Lawmakers are concerned on two fronts. First, voters will blame them if they fail to forge an accord. That could resonate at the ballot box. Second, a level of terror is starting to set in about the shape of the U.S. economy heading into the fall and winter. Restaurants and cafes are closing. Schools may have to shutter. And the only alternative lawmakers may have is coughing up gobs of money, just to keep the economy afloat.
“The last six months have just been emotionally exhausting for people. We’ve all heard this before. We’re ready for COVID-19 to be over. But the virus is not ready to be over with us,” said Murkowski.
A bill of this dimension is practically unprecedented. Only rivaled in sheer size by the $3 trillion coronavirus bill House Democrats assembled and passed in May. This is why lawmakers are increasingly jittery about never moving anything on the floor of the House or Senate. Finding the right cocktail of votes remains elusive with such a behemoth measure.
The price tag alone gives many Republicans heartburn.
It is often said that Congress is a “reactive” institution. Something big happens – and then Congress acts.
But that is a misnomer. A gunman shot former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., in the head in 2011. Unadulterated evil tore through Sandy Hook in 2012. Parkland in 2018. Firearms are a radioactive subject on Capitol Hill. But many observers expected the freeze on gun legislation would thaw in some form after any of those events.
In 2008, the nation teetered on the precipice of the biggest economic calamity since 1929. The administration of President George W. Bush and congressional leaders quickly crafted a surprisingly simple, but expensive and controversial measure to salvage the economy. Known as the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, the legislation created TARP, the Troubled Asset Relief Program. The bill awarded the Treasury Department $700 billion to snap up mangled mortgages, loans, debts and other holdings which were so volatile, they risked collapsing the economy.
In the most dramatic floor vote in decades, the House of Representatives defeated the initial version of TARP. The result stunned everyone. The market plunged out of control.
But a few days later, the Senate took charge, passing the measure and sending it back over to the House, which synced up.
And so here we are with discussions on the next coronavirus measure.
“There is a fear that people don’t really understand how bad this is,” said one senior House source who asked to not be identified. “Poverty. Starvation. We have to act.”
But it is so hard to cobble together a bill of this size and sell it to rank-and-file lawmakers. That’s the lesson from TARP.
“I feel optimistic there’s light at the end of the tunnel. But how long that tunnel is, is yet to be seen,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., last week.
Pelosi hosted almost daily meetings in her office with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows. Those conclaves produced millimeters of progress. With so little movement, Fox began hearing from trade groups and industry representatives. They fretted the sides may never forge a bill. There’s worry about businesses collapsing or significant layoffs if another package isn’t in the works. They worried about the lack of urgency on Capitol Hill.
“There is a fight-or-flight concern from the business industry,” said one government relations source. “It’s scary.”
“Having just a vision’s no solution,” wrote Stephen Sondheim.
If there is ever a pact, it will take days to merge ideas into legislative text.
If there ever was legislative language, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Pelosi, Schumer and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., would have to massage the plan with their conferences and caucuses. Concocting the right vote matrix to pass both chambers would loom as the most daunting task in this process. A mixture of Democrats and Republicans were supposed to vote TARP in the House in 2008 – but initially fell short.
Few Republicans will back anything unless there is a direct blessing by President Trump. McConnell reiterated to colleague Mike Emanuel last week that there are “15 or 20 of my members who believe that we’ve already added quite enough to the national debt.” It’s unclear if even Mr. Trump could pry any of those members loose.
Don’t forget how the President blew up an interim accord to avoid a government shutdown in December 2018. President Trump braised McConnell in that episode. McConnell thought he had the green light that the president would sign an interim measure to avert a shutdown. The Senate approved a stopgap plan and left town. Hours later, Mr. Trump balked. That triggered a 35-day government shutdown.
Certainly Democrats will have to compromise to get a deal. But Republicans and the president must compromise, too. And President Trump must send a clear, clarion signal that he would sign a final agreement into law.
Pelosi indicated she was prepared to drop her requirement of a $3 trillion-plus bill to something in the $2 trillion range. But administration negotiators say that was still too high. Schumer indicated that Democrats couldn’t go that low.
Democrats are key to the entire package since there is GOP resistance. Some Republicans will reject anything. But the Democrats may only be able to go to $2 trillion before there is attrition on their side of the aisle.
“The House doesn’t have the votes to go south of $2 trillion,” said Schumer. “The Senate Democrats [don’t have] votes below $2 trillion. That’s what compromise is all about.”
The sides are locked in. But, it should have been expected that Meadows and Mnuchin would have to be at loggerheads with Pelosi and Schumer for at least a while. This could demonstrate to President Trump that they’re not being rolled. Moreover, Pelosi and Schumer — but especially Pelosi – would have to show liberals they’re not willing to bend. The stalemate also gives the president the chance to implement an executive order and memoranda, bypassing Congress. That’s not to say this is staged parliamentary performance art. But the sides must definitely go through machinations if there ever is to be an agreement.
The president isn’t in the room – primarily because of epic blow-ups between him and Pelosi last year at the White House. It’s unclear if Mr. Trump has the bona fides to craft such a deal of this magnitude with Congress — despite his 1987 business book “The Art of the Deal.”
The person doing most of President Trump’s bidding is Meadows. Meadows helped create the Freedom Caucus when he represented North Carolina in Congress. His calling card was blowing things up. Meadows upended various proposals during his time on Capitol Hill. His July 2015 effort to prompt a new vote for Speaker in the middle of the Congress nudged then House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to retire later that year. It’s unknown if Meadows can pivot 180 degrees and fashion an agreement considering his track record. And, even if he can, can Meadows simultaneously get the president to sign off?
As Sondheim may say, “bit by bit. Putting it together.”
But it’s a glacial pace. And that’s a problem. No bill is coming any time soon.
“This is not a fine wine,” said Meadows. “It doesn’t improve with time.”