WASHINGTON — A crucial week on Capitol Hill that began with a rocky Republican rollout of a coronavirus relief package ended with a complete breakdown in negotiations, threatening to deepen the perils of an already embattled President Donald Trump.
The Republican-led Senate adjourned Thursday for a long weekend with no action on COVID-19 relief, all but ensuring that a $600 weekly federal unemployment benefit would expire Friday.
The payment has been a financial lifeline for more than 20 million out-of-work Americans. The U.S. recorded its worst quarterly economic contraction ever Thursday — during a week when the national death toll from the virus topped 150,000.
It was a precarious position for Trump, who has gotten low marks in surveys for his handling of a crisis that has devastated Americans — and is about to get worse for many of them. The recent slide has left him trailing Democrat Joe Biden by more than 8 points in the FiveThirtyEight average of national polls.
"When things go wrong with government policy, voters blame the president," Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, said in an email. "The classic case is Herbert Hoover and the Depression. Carter and Bush 41 lost their reelection bids because of economic downturns that were much less severe."
"In this case, the problems are unusually serious and the president's responsibility is unusually clear," he said. "Message to the GOP from top to bottom: Be afraid. Be very afraid."
The Democratic-led House passed a $3.4 trillion bill in May that would extend the $600 weekly benefit through January. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., twice sought to force a Senate vote on the bill Thursday, but he was blocked by Republicans who say the bonus is a disincentive to work and should be reduced.
Republicans sought to vote Thursday on a proposal to cut the benefit to 66 percent of lost wages or to $200 a week. Schumer blocked that, calling it insufficient. When Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., asked for a one-week extension of the existing policy, Schumer dubbed the request a "stunt" that "can't be implemented in time" and called on the Senate to pass the House-approved HEROES Act.
David Kochel, a Republican strategist, accused Schumer of refusing to compromise with the intention of hurting the GOP in the election on Nov. 3, when Democrats hope to capture the White House and the Senate.
"Schumer is the villain here," Kochel said. "He's lowering the faith of the American people in Washington and the Congress. He's doing more damage than just to President Trump's re-election chances."
Democrats said Republicans were the ones inflicting political harm on their own party's leader. "Beyond being substantively stupid and incredibly cruel, the Republicans are making a massive political error," said Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama. "Controlling COVID and rescuing the economy are the best ways to preserve their hold on power, yet they are too focused on helping corporations and hurting people to do what is in their own interest."
'We're at an impasse'
A series of bipartisan negotiations this week yielded no progress.
"Right now, we're at an impasse," Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., the chair of the Appropriations Committee, told NBC News as he left the Capitol on Thursday.
As Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., put it: "Progress isn't exactly what we're doing right now."
As Republicans accuse Democrats of refusing to negotiate in good faith, Democrats say the proposal by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is an unserious one because it lacks the support of many Republicans.
"Our colleagues on the other side are tied in a knot," Schumer said Thursday. "Our colleagues on the other side can't come to agreement on anything."
Central to the breakdown are Republican divisions that are aggravated by a mercurial Trump, who has undercut party leaders on numerous occasions.
McConnell unveiled a $1 trillion package Monday that quickly met resistance from some senators and was pronounced "semi-irrelevant" by Trump the next day. McConnell was forced to denounce a piece of his own plan, which he initially appeared unaware of when asked about it Monday, to spend $1.75 billion on a new FBI building at Trump's request.
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On Wednesday, Trump floated a short-term extension of jobless aid that gained little support from Republican senators. He added to the chaos by claiming that the payments Democrats supported weren't "high enough," even as GOP senators roundly said they were too high.
Underscoring his difficult negotiating position, McConnell said Wednesday on "PBS NewsHour" that about 20 Republican senators believe Congress has "already done enough" and don't want to spend more money.
'Can't negotiate with a ghost'
By Thursday, as senators were planning to leave for the weekend, McConnell resorted to advancing an empty "shell" bill to kick off the process of debating.
"It makes it the pending business for next week, and we can keep talking and hopefully make progress, because no progress is being made anywhere else," he said.
McConnell, whose job is on the line this fall, has passed the torch to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows to negotiate with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. The four of them met several times this week with no apparent agreement.
A senior Democratic aide familiar with the negotiations said Pelosi and Schumer can't detect a coherent Republican position or figure out who's in charge.
"You can't negotiate with a ghost," the aide said.
"Does Meadows speak for Trump? Does Mnuchin speak for Trump? Does Meadows speak for Mnuchin?" said the aide, who discussed the talks on condition of anonymity. "You don't even know what McConnell thinks, because he doesn't have the backing of his conference."
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, argued that both parties will be blamed for the inaction: "People will just say a pox on all their houses."
And Meadows said the president is "on the side of the people" and would be rewarded for it.
"I think if you look at this and you start to focus on the politics instead of the people, you're doing the wrong thing," Meadows told reporters Thursday during a trip to Capitol Hill. "When you're on the side of the people that ultimately vote, that takes care of itself in November or whenever it might be."