In Stimulus Talks, McConnell Is Outside the Room and in a Tight Spot

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WASHINGTON — Senator Mitch McConnell has put himself in one of the toughest spots of a political life that has seen plenty of them.

Up for re-election in the middle of an unforgiving pandemic, the Kentucky Republican and majority leader is caught in a family feud between a group of endangered incumbents in his party who are desperate for pandemic relief legislation that is tied up in slogging negotiations, and a significant portion of Senate Republicans who would rather do nothing at all.

He is also up against Democratic leaders who do not see the need to give an inch on their own sweeping coronavirus relief priorities, administration negotiators who badly want a deal that boosts President Trump — even if it ends up being one that most Senate Republicans oppose — and the president himself, who has played his usual role of undercutting the talks at every turn.

All that is at stake is the health and economic state of the nation, control of the Senate and Mr. McConnell’s own reputation and future.

“It is a big moment, an important moment for the country,” said Mr. McConnell, who has been adept at striking last-minute, bipartisan tax and fiscal bargains in dire situations — but not in circumstances quite like the present. “It does happen to be occurring in closer proximity to the election than those other big deals.”

It is also a big moment for the top Senate Republican, who may end up having to pave the legislative way for a huge federal spending package that many in his party detest.

Mr. McConnell has only himself to thank for his predicament.

While Speaker Nancy Pelosi pushed through a sweeping, $3 trillion recovery measure in May and Democrats demanded for months that Republicans join them in mapping out a next phase of federal pandemic relief, Mr. McConnell instead hit the pause button, which he and his fellow Republicans said was necessary to assess how the nearly $3 trillion in aid already approved was working.

Visible in the background was the hope that the monthslong shutdown of the economy and stay-at-home orders would corral the spread of the coronavirus and spare Republicans from having to get behind another costly round of aid. That did not happen. Instead, the virus surged back in many parts of the country, many school systems announced they would stick with distance learning for the fall and the initial recovery started to slide.

“It allowed us to learn the coronavirus didn’t mysteriously disappear,” he said in an interview on Wednesday. “It is still here.”

But the delay meant that Republicans did not even present their aid proposals until days before expanded unemployment benefits that were cushioning millions of Americans from the worst of the recession were to expire. They lapsed last week with no ready replacement, and a small-business program considered crucial to preventing a total economic collapse is set to expire on Friday, leading Democrats to accuse Mr. McConnell of acting irresponsibly.

“He’s not even sitting in the room,” Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the minority leader, said on Tuesday, suggesting that Mr. McConnell was unaware of the substance of the talks.

Ms. Pelosi has taken to referring to Mr. McConnell as Moscow Mitch, a name she knows he doesn’t appreciate, and in an appearance Wednesday on MSNBC ridiculed him for failing to deliver a Republican majority for his own proposal.

“As you have seen from the majority leader, Mr. McConnell, they don’t have the votes,” she said. “They have votes for practically nothing. They haven’t passed anything. They don’t even have the votes within their own 51.”

The situation has also left Senate Republicans up for re-election — who have already seen their political chances dragged down by Mr. Trump’s poor standing — with the unappealing prospect of facing voters in less than three months without having acted to address their most pressing economic and public health needs. Their demises could cost Republicans their Senate majority and Mr. McConnell his position. And while he is currently not regarded as particularly vulnerable to defeat, the Kentuckian is facing his own challenge from a Democrat, Amy McGrath, a well-financed former Marine fighter pilot.

Mr. McConnell insisted on Wednesday that his go-slow approach had been “the reasonable thing to do.”

“Pushing the pause button meant seeing how what we have already done is working,” said Mr. McConnell, whose office said that slightly more than $1 trillion of the original $2.6 trillion allocated for the pandemic response remained unspent. “This is not play money.”

Under the pressure of the expiring jobless pay and playing defense in the upcoming election, Senate Republicans came up with their own $1 trillion plan that would slash the jobless benefits — in an unworkable way, according to many experts — and failed to provide any of the $1 trillion in aid Democrats have demanded for struggling state and local governments.

Democrats rejected the proposal out of hand. But more troubling for Mr. McConnell was that a significant portion of his fellow Senate Republicans — he estimated 15 to 20 — made clear they won’t support any measure, a division that significantly weakened his hand in negotiating with Democrats, who already considered themselves in a position of strength.

“I do have a divided conference on whether to go forward,” Mr. McConnell said. “I personally think we need to do another bill.”

But, he added, “It is not an entirely irrational reaction when some of my members say they haven’t even spent what we already allocated.”

With his own members split, Mr. McConnell threw the talks over to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, drawing biting criticism from Democrats that the majority leader had relegated himself to the sidelines and was out of the loop.

Mr. McConnell sharply rejected that idea, seeming insulted that anyone would seriously believe he was not playing his usual leadership role. It would be counterproductive, he argued, to engage directly in the talks when the White House negotiators and the Democrats would have to reach an agreement that he would then try to sell to his own membership if he found it suitable. He said he was fully apprised of the substance of the bargaining.

“Every decision I make about this sort of thing is entirely calculated,” Mr. McConnell said. “It eliminates sitting there and having to listen to Pelosi and Schumer’s talking points, which gets in the way of serious discussion. Meadows and Mnuchin are not hiding the ball from me, and I’m not hiding the ball from my colleagues.”

While many Republicans might find fault with any eventual bill, most of his colleagues back Mr. McConnell’s approach.

“I think that the leader wants to be assured that whatever comes out is something that gets signed,” Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, told reporters on Wednesday. “Mnuchin and Meadows report back. It’s like he’s in the room, even though he’s not.”

Mr. McConnell said that he talked to Mr. Trump frequently and that they consulted by phone on Wednesday as they also celebrated a Kansas primary victory that put Senate Republicans in better position to hold on to a seat there. He said the president’s commitment to getting an agreement was illustrated by the fact that he had dispatched two top advisers to handle the negotiations.

Still, the president has not tried to hide his disdain for Mr. McConnell’s proposal. Mr. Trump called the plan “semi-irrelevant” when it was rolled out. He blasted Senate Republicans for backing away from his demand that they include money for construction of a new F.B.I. building across the street from his hotel in downtown Washington, saying that they should “go back to school and learn.” He has sent mixed signals on the only provision that Mr. McConnell has called a “red line” in the measure — a broad legal liability shield for businesses — and clung to a payroll tax cut that everyone else has already dismissed.

The fight over the package has spurred some bitter attacks from both sides, with Mr. McConnell accusing Mr. Schumer of single-handedly blocking a temporary extension of unemployment benefits and Mr. Schumer regularly castigating Mr. McConnell for steering clear of the talks.

“It strains reason for Leader McConnell to criticize those of us who are actually engaged in negotiations while he is intentionally staying out of them,” Mr. Schumer said Wednesday on the Senate floor, accusing Mr. McConnell of “‘Alice in Wonderland’ rhetoric.”

Despite the back-and-forth, Mr. McConnell predicted that an agreement could still be reached given the national and political imperatives at work. Failure would most likely take a toll on Republicans whose prospects for holding the Senate are already in jeopardy. But if a deal materializes, he said, it will not be, as he has repeatedly said recently, a kumbaya moment and support will be fractured.

“If I were betting, I would bet we do get an outcome,” he said. “I would still bet we have a good chance of getting a result.”

For now, however, that agreement remains elusive.

Senator John Cornyn of Texas, a top McConnell ally, noted that Mr. McConnell had proved himself a legislative magician in the past, able to conjure a rabbit from a hat.

“I keep asking if he feels any fuzzy ears,” Mr. Cornyn said. “But he said he can’t feel any fuzzy ears right now.”

Emily Cochrane contributed reporting.

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