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McConnell: Some Republicans think ‘we have already done enough’ pandemic aid

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Wednesday he was open to striking a narrow deal to extend federal unemployment benefits set to expire at the end of the week, as signs emerged that both parties in Congress and the White House remained far apart on a long-term fix for workers hurt by the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’re looking at all options,” McConnell told PBS NewsHour anchor and managing editor Judy Woodruff, including a “more narrow” measure if Congress can’t pass the broader, $1 trillion plan Senate Republicans floated this week.

The GOP proposal would reduce extra unemployment benefits for Americans who lost their jobs due to COVID-19. Congress included the additional $600 a week payments in a relief package passed in March, but those benefits expire at the end of the month.

Democrats have dismissed the proposal as inadequate, and McConnell acknowledged the plan doesn’t have enough support among Senate Republicans to pass.

“About 20 of my members think that we’ve already done enough,” McConnell said, adding that many Republicans were concerned about adding to the national debt. 

Republicans have also argued the extra unemployment benefits were incentivizing people not to return to work, something Democrats and some economists dispute. McConnell noted the GOP plan included a onetime $1,200 stimulus check, which he said would help Americans struggling to get by during the pandemic.

McConnell’s comments came soon after White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said both parties and the White House were too far apart to strike a broad deal on unemployment before the Friday deadline.

President Donald Trump and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin also signalled Wednesday they were willing to reach a short-term agreement. Trump also said he did not want people to get evicted from their homes who have been hard hit by the public health crisis. The CARES Act that boosted federal unemployment benefits also included a moratorium on evictions, but that expired earlier this month.

In the NewsHour interview, McConnell rejected as too costly a House Democratic bill that would provide $3 trillion in additional spending on efforts against the coronavirus.

“We think that’s clearly far beyond what is necessary to get us through this next period as we continue to wrestle with the coronavirus,” McConnell said.

The Kentucky Republican also said he did not want to include any non-COVID-19 related items in the next coronavirus relief bill. The current Republican plan includes $1.8 billion to renovate the FBI headquarters across from the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C.

McConnell also touched on the issue of mask-wearing at the Capitol, which was back in the spotlight Wednesday after Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, became the latest lawmaker to test positive for COVID-19. That revelation came the day after he appeared in a committee hearing with Attorney General Bill Barr. 

The Senate majority leader said there was no need for a mask mandate for Senate lawmakers, noting that most Republicans have chosen to wear one at the Capitol. “We’ve had good compliance of that on the Senate side without a mandate,” he said.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    With 23 million Americans out of work, the stakes are dire for many families if more help is not on the way. There remain deep divisions among lawmakers.

    To shed light on where things stand, I spoke just moments ago with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

    Mr. Majority Leader, thank you very much for joining us.

    The chief of staff at the White House, Mark Meadows, has just said in the last few minutes that they are nowhere close to a deal between the two sides on COVID relief.

    Given the division among Republicans, members of your own party, does that mean these benefits, additional unemployment benefits, are going to lapse on Friday?

  • Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.:

    Well, I certainly hope not. Neither side would like for that to happen.

    And, you know, many things around here happen at the last minute. This is only Wednesday. So, hope springs eternal that we will reach some kind of agreement, either on a broad basis or a more narrow basis, to avoid having an adverse impact on unemployment.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, speaking of a more narrow basis, our Lisa Desjardins has reported that something like 20 members of your Republican Caucus have problems with the proposal, the larger Republican proposal, that you outlined the other day.

    Given that, are you seriously looking at some sort of slimmed-down short-term deal here?

  • Sen. Mitch McConnell:

    Well, we're looking at all options.

    Of course, the — Secretary Mnuchin and Chief of Staff Mark Meadows are doing the negotiating with the Democrats.

    But you're right, Judy. About 20 of my members think that we have already done enough. They are deeply concerned, and it's understandable, about the size of our national debt now, which is as big as our economy for of the first time since World War II.

    And so I do have a reasonable number of members who don't think we ought to do another package.

    That is not my view. And it's not the majority of our conference view, nor is it the view of the president. We have divided government, so we have to sit down with the Democrats and work out something. And, hopefully, we will begin to do that before the end of the week.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, what is going to make the difference?

    Because, today, none other than the chairman of the Federal Reserve, Jay Powell, is again saying, the economy needs the kind of boost that it got in the spring from the congressional COVID relief package. He's urging Congress to do something like that again.

    How do you turn your members around who say, we have already done enough?

  • Sen. Mitch McConnell:

    Well, I agree with the chairman of the Fed. We need to do more.

    I'm sure he didn't put a number on it. The issue is how much. The Democratic House wanted to add $3 trillion to the national debt, as much as we added back in March and April. We think that's clearly far beyond what is necessary to get us through this next period, as we continue to wrestle with the coronavirus, which is simply not going away any time soon.

    We all know that. And until we get a vaccine, we can't begin to put this in the rearview mirror. So, the economy does need more help. We have divided government. We have to talk to each other and we have to try to get an outcome.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You have made the argument steadily, Mr. Majority Leader, that the reason the benefits, these additional $600 a week in benefits, shouldn't be conditioned is that it's incentive for many people not to go back to work, just to stay home.

    But we have looked at what economists are saying. They're saying, there's just no measurable evidence that people are staying home because of that. They say, if they are staying home, it's because they don't have a job to go back to, or they don't have child care, or they have a serious worry about getting sick.

  • Sen. Mitch McConnell:

    I don't know which economists you're talking about, but a huge percentage of people in that category are choosing based upon the fact that they can make more staying at home, not an irrational decision when you look at the numbers, are reluctant to go back to work.

    So, unemployment insurance is extremely important, particularly at a time of high unemployment, like we have now. And it ought to be operating like it has traditionally. But to pay people more to stay home than to go back to work, we think, is a mistake.

    And I don't know which economists you're citing, but there are huge numbers of small business people all across the country, almost without exception, telling us, and I'm sure telling the Democrats as well, that this is a deterrent to getting back to work.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, there are a number of them.

    But let me just be very specific. We put a call-out through social media, asking people to let us know about unemployment benefits. We had something like 2,000 people responding, including a woman named Latrice Wilson. She's from Kentucky, your home state.

    She says that $600 additional a week allows her to pay for the medicine she needs for her autoimmune disease and to pay for her daughter to continue to go to college.

    What do you say to someone like Mrs. Wilson?

  • Sen. Mitch McConnell:

    What I'm saying to Mrs. Wilson is, you're probably going to be eligible for the $1,200 additional cash payment that we would make under our proposal, the same as back in the CARES Act, direct cash straight into your pocket out of our package.

    So, yes, those are people who do have significant concerns. And we address that with $1,200 direct cash payment.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let me ask you about a number of other things very quickly.

    Government reports are right now, Mr. Leader, that as many as 26 million Americans, most of them with children, say they aren't getting enough to eat these days.

    We know that, for very young children, that can be incredibly harmful. Democrats — the Democrats' plan right now increases food stamp, or SNAP, benefits by 15 percent. The Republican proposal would not extend those increased benefits. Why not?

  • Sen. Mitch McConnell:

    Well, I'm sure, when we sit down to talk to the Democrats, that will be an area we discuss.

    But, of course, one thing that is extremely important to make sure children are well-fed is to get them back in school. And we actually put more money in our proposal than House Democrats for education.

    That's both K-12 and college. And to the extent that these local school districts are allowed — make the decision to let their children come back to school, that will take care of a lot of the — for many of these kids, the best meal they get of the day is the one they get at school.

    So, getting them back in school, I think, is an important step in the right direction.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    There's also a question about housing. Democrats would ban evictions, continue to ban evictions.

    Are you prepared, as early as this — next week, in coming weeks, to see people thrown out of their house or apartment because they can't afford to make rent or mortgage payment?

  • Sen. Mitch McConnell:

    Yes. And I think that is the sort of thing we ought to be talking about with the Democrats to try to get to a solution.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Aid to state and local governments, Mr. Majority Leader.

    Democrats are asking for a trillion dollars almost in aid to pay these front-line workers, people who are out there working because they have to, despite the coronavirus. The Republican bill, nothing in there for these state and local government workers. Why not?

  • Sen. Mitch McConnell:

    Judy, as you know, every state budget has two really big items, education and Medicaid.

    Our proposal puts more money in for education than the Democratic proposal. Education aid is aid to state and local government. And so we think that is a excellent way to infuse cash.

    In addition to that, the previous $150 billion that we sent down to states, much of which has not been dispensed yet, we would change the formula — change the proposal to allow them to use it in any way they choose, even including revenue replacement.

    So, in both of those ways, we think we provide additional assistance to states and localities.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Two other very quick things.

    You have said you don't like the idea that there is $1.8 billion in this plan for a new FBI building in Washington, coincidentally, across the street from the Trump Hotel. You said you want only COVID material in this bill.

    Why not just say no to the White House on this? And, by the way, there's money, 8 — another $8 billion in this bill for military materiel, F-35 fighters, and so forth.

  • Sen. Mitch McConnell:

    Yes.

    Well, in the House bill, for example, there's a tax cut for high-income people in blue states and all kinds of things related to marijuana and the legalization of assistance — assistance to illegal immigrants.

    I mean, my point was, Judy, I think all of the things that are not related to the COVID-19 fight ought to come out, whether it's the FBI building or whether it's a tax cut for wealthy people in blue states.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, can you just say no to the White House on the FBI?

  • Sen. Mitch McConnell:

    I would say no to all of these unrelated COVID-19 items that both sides have made an effort to inject into the debate.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, finally, in the wake of more members of Congress testing positive for COVID-19, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is saying she is considering a requirement that everyone on the House side of the Capitol wear a mask.

    Would you consider that kind of requirement in the Senate?

  • Sen. Mitch McConnell:

    Well, we have had good luck without a requirement. I believe just about every one of my members is wearing a mask.

    And we have since the 1st of May, when we resumed. And I think we have been following the guidelines of the Capitol physician, properly socially distanced, wearing a mask, which I had on until I stepped up to the microphone to talk to you.

    And we have had good compliance with that on the Senate side, without a mandate. And so we're getting compliance the voluntary — in the old-fashioned way. Everybody is doing it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Would you consider a requirement, though, if necessary?

  • Sen. Mitch McConnell:

    It appears not to be necessary, since everybody seems to be doing it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    All right, we will leave it there.

  • Sen. Mitch McConnell:

    OK.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, thank you very much.

  • Sen. Mitch McConnell:

    Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And just moments ago, after that interview, the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, announced that everyone, both members and staff, are now required to wear a mask in the entire House of Representatives complex.

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