Senate Republicans plot their Covid aid payback

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“What keeps me up at night is our national debt and how much we’re paying right now. So it is a huge concern,” said Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.). “We’re certainly going to dig in on those issues.”

Unless Democrats somehow manage to scrap the filibuster, the 50-vote Senate Republican minority will find itself wielding impressive leverage against a president who pushed forward on a party-line Covid stimulus and aggravated many in the GOP. On big issues, Democrats are “going to have to negotiate at some point,” said Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.).

“You’ll see a real focus now on making sure whatever we do going forward is targeted. And that the Democrats can’t just spend money willy-nilly,” Thune said. “They’re going to have to come to the table.”

The dynamics recall the rise of the tea party era in Washington, when the GOP used the 60-vote threshold needed for most Senate legislation to extract concessions from Democrats. Then-Vice President Biden cut a debt limit deal with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell in 2011 that defined the GOP as the party of austerity during the Obama administration, an episode both men may end up reliving a decade later.

The Biden-McConnell talks were followed by a 2013 GOP push to defund Obamacare that resulted in a debilitating government shutdown. Trump’s presidency eased the Republican pursuit of deficit hawkishness, although his fixation on border security ended in the longest government shutdown in history in 2018. Following Trump’s defeat, some Republicans are already staking out hardline positions that threaten to cause showdowns over spending later this year.

Several GOP senators are already lining up against raising the debt ceiling without associated spending cuts, including National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair Rick Scott (R-Fla.). That belief is “pretty widespread within the Republican conference,” Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) said; Thune said he doubted that 10 Republicans will vote for a clean debt ceiling increase.

“We’ve got plenty of big government Republicans. But if ever there was a time to talk about how much we’re spending, or at least how to offset that spending? Now is the time,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.). “Will I have the entire conference behind me? I don’t know.”

The GOP is also recoiling at Biden’s reported plan to pursue the first major hike of federal taxes in 30 years to help fund his economic revitalization — a White House effort that will likely pour gasoline on the Republican austerity reboot. That spells trouble for a bipartisan infrastructure and jobs package that Democrats and the White House are preparing in the coming months.

Tax increases of any kind are “not something people in Wyoming say they want to have happen,” Sen. John Barrasso, the chamber’s third-ranking Republican, said of his home-state voters. “This isn’t something that Republicans are going to want to get involved in.”

Biden’s party can use the maneuver known as budget reconciliation once more this year to shield a major measure from the filibuster, but that decision comes with limits. Infrastructure legislation is currently the favorite to get consideration on party-line votes in a second try at reconciliation. Tax hikes could be tucked into that bill as could a debt limit increase, though that has been rare in recent years. But no matter how Democrats deploy the year’s last shot to pass a big bill with a simple majority, negotiations with the GOP are unavoidable as long as the legislative filibuster lives.

Government funding is set to run out at the end of September, about three weeks after the expiration of the latest tranche of boosted federal unemployment benefits approved during Covid. Senate Democrats will need some Republican buy-in on a slate of annual appropriations bills to avoid a shutdown. The debt ceiling could hit right around the same time, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Democrats have anticipated this GOP shift, ever since McConnell called for a “pause” on coronavirus relief last spring. And the passage of the massive Covid stimulus bill along party lines gives the looming fiscal confrontations an air of inevitability.

“Republicans clearly get religion on deficits and debt when they’re in the minority. They don’t give a crap about it when they’re running the place,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “I don’t know that the American people are going to be that interested in austerity.”

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said that he “wouldn’t expect otherwise from Republicans” who are now ready to wring sacrifices out of his party before giving in on must-pass spending bills.

“They were not deficit hawks by a long shot when they were in control, but I’m realistic about what they are going to say now,” Kaine said.

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