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Those were the words of a senior Republican source about how tough the path may be for the Senate to align with the House of Representatives and approve a massive coronavirus measure. There is one school of thought that the Senate could simply take up the House bill and pass it on the spot. But frankly, the course is much, much harder than that.
In fact, there are some technical problems in the drafting of the coronavirus legislation that requires the House to pass the bill again – perhaps with a skeleton staff – later this week. More on that in a moment.
The House overwhelmingly okayed the emergency coronavirus package in the wee hours of Saturday morning after more than 20 phone calls between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.
“What made it hard is that we could never get everyone in the same room,” said one source.
In other words, social distancing contributed to a problem in the drafting of the legislation and trading of offers. Usually, the sides would lock themselves into a room and go around the table. But not in the age of coronavirus.
That prompted dozens upon dozens of phone calls between Pelosi, Mnuchin, other officials at Treasury, the White House, Republican Congressional leaders, House Committees, legislative counsel, et al. You get the idea.
Don’t forget that President Woodrow Wilson fell ill with the Spanish Flu in 1919. Wilson’s bout with the flu nearly sidetracked the Treaty of Versailles to end World War I. In other words, there’s precedent for pandemics shaping the curve of negotiating some of the most important things in politics.
So, the road to passage in the Senate? Unclear – even though 140 House GOPers voted for the plan in a witching hour vote Saturday morning and President Trump tweeted his support for it – just hours after dismissing the legislation.
Perhaps Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) was prescient about the possible problems facing the Senate with this bill. McConnell bolted from the Capitol mid-afternoon Thursday as Pelosi and Mnuchin continued to talk. There was no clear route to pass any coronavirus bill on Thursday afternoon. There was no final bill. And, it took the House an additional 34 hours to assemble the coronavirus package.
But Pelosi and Mnuchin wouldn’t have continued to bargain into the night on Thursday and all day Friday had there not been a deal to be had.
So, when the Senate finally adjourned Thursday, it locked in a procedural vote at 5:30 p.m. et Monday – related to FISA. That’s the controversial surveillance program which expired over the weekend. Yep. Nothing pertaining to (at that point) any possible coronavirus bill. In fact, the Monday vote tied to FISA in the Senate is two parliamentary steps removed from actually reauthorizing FISA. In Senate language, this is a motion to invoke cloture on the motion to proceed to the FISA bill. In layman’s terms, that means the Senate must break a filibuster (with 60 yeas) just to start debate on FISA. If 60 senators vote yes, and there’s no other agreement, and they do it by the book, then the Senate wouldn’t formally start debate until late Tuesday night on FISA. Another procedural vote would be required later in the week just to wrap up all debate. Only then would the Senate be able to vote on FISA and move to the House coronavirus bill.
That’s if they do it by the book. And Fox is told there are plenty of senators who want to alter the House coronavirus bill.
Let’s start with the status of the FISA package. Attorney General Bill Barr came to Capitol Hill last Monday night to negotiate a final version with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and members of the conservative Freedom Caucus. The sides forged a bipartisan pact with Pelosi and other Democrats. The House approved the FISA renewal. And then President Trump tweeted that “Many Republican Senators want me to Veto the FISA bill until we find out what led to, and happened with, the illegal attempted ‘coup’ of the duly elected President of the United States and others!” But McCarthy signaled Friday night he expected Mr. Trump to sign FISA once it got through the Senate.
In other words, if the Senate can wrap up FISA quickly, only then can the senators advance to the coronavirus bill. But if FISA is stalled, who knows.
A top aide to McConnell e-mailed the Capitol Hill press corps after the House finished voting in the wee hours of Saturday morning. The staffer observed it would take the cooperation of 100 senators to start work on the coronavirus bill – regardless of FISA. But, since the House must still resolve problems with its own bill, McConnell suggested Sunday night that it would wait for the House to re-approve that measure.
A senior House Democratic aide expected the House to pass the fixed version of the bill via unanimous consent this week – that’s so long as no one objects. An objection from any lawmaker would stall the bill in the House and require all House members to return to Washington to vote.
You might recall an episode last spring where the House tried to move a $19.1 billion disaster measure to help areas ravaged by hurricanes and flooding. The House hoped to okay the plan via unanimous consent since communities needed the funding. Yet on three different occasions, Reps. Chip Roy (R-TX), Thomas Massie (R-KY) and John Rose (R-TN) all objected. That delayed the bill – forcing the House to vote on the package about a week later.
One may ask who would want to get in the way of getting the actual coronavirus bill over to the Senate. Well, there is precedent for lawmakers blocking swift approval of the disaster bill. Many of the 40 House Republicans who opposed the measure Saturday morning complained they only had a few minutes to read the coronavirus bill text. And, to this point, no one truly knows the cost of the measure. It’s anywhere from tens of billions of dollars to the hundreds of billions of dollars.
“We don’t know the price tag because we don’t know the coronavirus model yet,” said one source.
The world has never witnessed a modern pandemic like coronavirus. So any attempt to assign a dollar figure at this stage is potentially a fool’s errand.
Keep in mind that this coronavirus bill was supposed to be the easy bill. One can anticipate just how complicated and onerous other bills could be. Industry bailouts. Increases in wages. Back pay. Amplified social programs. A recalibration of health care. Oh, and don’t forget the looming issues with re-insurance.
Here we have a major event which upends the economy and forces the cancellation of practically everything. As we saw after 9/11, it may be tough for some current insurers to remain solvent because of major payouts. Therefore, insurance firms cede the risk to another insurer. That helps mitigate some of the risk. Complicated? You bet.
It’s truly unclear what path the Senate may take with the coronavirus measure this week. Or, maybe it bleeds into next week.
And that’s the issue. Some will argue Congress needs to act – and fast. Others will protest that the bill(s) are too big. Too massive. Congress should slow down.
“This all needs to be sorted out at the usual Tuesday lunches,” said one source, referring to the typical policy lunches on Capitol Hill. Each Tuesday, all of the Republicans huddle in the Mike Mansfield Room at the Capitol for lunch. The Democrats crowd into the Lyndon B. Johnson Room.
Yes. Business as usual, apparently. Senators bunching up together in the same room – over lunch, no less.
“We really just need to get these guys out of the building, before everyone gets sick,” said one aide.