'What in the hell are we doing?' Divided Senate Republicans clash over coronavirus relief

WASHINGTON — Beset by internal divisions and clashes with the Trump administration, Senate Republicans on Tuesday downplayed the prospects of enacting new coronavirus relief before key pieces like boosted unemployment payments expire.

Republicans continue to negotiate among themselves but broadly oppose an extension beyond this week of the $600 weekly jobless benefit that millions of Americans are collecting. Complicating Republican talks is the White House, which is attempting to cut funding for COVID-19 testing and demanding a payroll tax cut that many in the president's party oppose.

Talks with Democrats, who will be needed to pass the bill, haven't even begun.

At a Tuesday meeting of Republican lawmakers, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, stood up to cast doubt on the spending talks, and asked: “What the hell are we doing?” according to a Republican source familiar with his remarks.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who was more optimistic about negotiations, and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows attended the meeting with Senate Republicans.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said any bill must include enhanced liability protections, but offered few other details of what he will propose.

"I'm going to introduce a bill in the next few days that is a starting place that enjoys fairly significant support among Republican senators, probably not everyone," he after the meeting said.

'There's a lot of disagreement amongst the members'

McConnell said Senate Republicans "overwhelmingly" oppose extending the $600 because they believe it's a deterrent to work, but noted that there's "room for negotiation" on a solution.

"There's a lot of disagreement amongst the members," Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said after a caucus meeting Tuesday.

In May, the Democratic-led House passed a $3.4 trillion bill that extends the emergency jobless benefits through January, approves additional aid for families, workers and businesses, and tacks on some other progressive provisions. Senate Republicans have roundly rejected the bill but continue to struggle to unite around an alternative that satisfies competing priorities within their party.

"We haven’t reached a conclusion on anything," Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., said.

And after he gets Republicans on board, McConnell said his proposal will be used as a starting point for bipartisan discussion. He needs at least seven Democratic votes.

"Clearly they have the ability to prevent us from passing anything and that's been their mindset lately," he said. "And so I think it's pretty clear they're not irrelevant. We do have to talk to them."

Asked later if he expects a bill to pass by end of next week, McConnell laughed and said "no," according to a pool report.

'All very 60,000-foot'

After the meeting, Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., said Senate Republicans came to "some recognition that we need to do something more with" jobless benefits but no agreement on what.

One of Trump's top priority, the payroll tax cut, came up "only briefly" and without details. Funding for state and local governments is "still a little bit of a work in progress," Cassidy said.

There were no discussions of how much money to put in the Paycheck Protection Program, the loan program for small businesses. Senators and administration officials didn't discuss the parameters of another round of stimulus payments.

"It was all very 60,000-foot," Cassidy said.

Image: Donald Trump (Evan Vucci / AP)
Image: Donald Trump (Evan Vucci / AP)

Divisions are widening between Senate Republicans with some pushing against new spending and others eager to return home next month with assistance for their ailing states.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who faces a tough re-election battle this fall, said there are "far higher priorities" than a payroll tax cut, which she called "extremely expensive" with limited impact.

"It would only benefit individual who are working. It also would displace other spending that I think is far more important," Collins told reporters on Tuesday.

McConnell also cast doubt on the payroll tax.

"There are some differences of opinion on the question of the payroll tax cut and whether that's the best way to go. And so we're still in discussion with the administration on that," McConnell said.

Even Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., one of the most pro-business and anti-tax members of the chamber, is undecided on whether to support a payroll tax cut, he told NBC News on Tuesday.

McConnell said his one red line is that the bill include liability protections for businesses, schools, hospitals and other entities as long as they're not "grossly negligent" upon reopening.

A headache for party leaders is that some are dead set against new federal spending.

"I just came out of a Republican caucus meeting that could be sort of the Bernie bros, progressive caucus," said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., comparing GOP senators to supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. "I'm alarmed that we're talking about spending another trillion dollars we don't have."

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said he's "not supporting any new spending right now," and suggested that Congress instead re-purpose funds that have been authorized.

Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said McConnell wants to limit the cost of a new bill to $1 trillion and some senators said that would constrain their policy options.

The Republican divisions are likely to strengthen the negotiating hand of Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., as failing to act while coronavirus cases are rising could be politically disastrous for Trump and his party heading into the election.

Cassidy said top administration officials are holding preliminary talks with Democrats.

"Mnuchin and Meadows are meeting with Pelosi and Schumer, I think, this afternoon," he said. "They said we're not negotiating, we're just kind of establishing the framework by which to proceed."