Editorial: Don’t be fooled by the Senate Republicans’ farcical COVID-19 maneuver

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republicans on Capitol Hill.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republicans discuss their coronavirus aid package in Washington on July 27. They later abandoned that proposal in favor of the more modest one that was blocked Thursday.
(Susan Walsh / Associated Press)

After doing virtually nothing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic for more than four months, Senate Republicans finally came up with a proposal this week that more than 50 of them could agree on: a “skinny” plan to provide $300 billion in new federal dollars, plus $350 billion left over from a previous bill, to boost unemployment benefits, aid small businesses and support schools, among other things.

Then a Democratic filibuster prevented the bill from coming up for a vote, prompting Republicans to complain that Democrats don’t care about people who are suffering. “Every Senate Democrat just voted against hundreds of billions of dollars of COVID-19 relief,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) tweeted. “Their goal is clear: No help for American families before the election.”

Puh-lease. As is so often the case in Washington, what played out on the floor was legislative theater, the congressional equivalent of scripted reality television. McConnell brought up a bill that wasn’t designed to help American families; it was designed to make Democrats look like Snidely Whiplash in comparison to the Republican Dudley Do-Rights facing tough reelection battles in November.


The problem starts in McConnell’s caucus, where fiscal responsibility becomes an issue only when times are bad and Americans need the federal government’s help. Republican senators blanched not just at the $3.4-trillion wish list for pandemic relief that House Democrats muscled through in May, but at a $1-trillion package their own side cobbled together in late July. McConnell didn’t even call up the smaller bill for a vote because there was so much Republican opposition.

Instead, on Tuesday he rolled out smaller bill that provided no money for beleaguered state and local governments, no help for mass transit systems, a far smaller increase in unemployment benefits than Congress provided earlier in the year, no money for food aid, and no stimulus checks. What it did have, in addition to the popular aid for small businesses and schools, were at least two needlessly provocative provisions that McConnell knew Democrats could not accept: a broad immunity shield for businesses and tax breaks to subsidize private schools.

The bottom line here is that the two sides remain far apart, and McConnell’s maneuvers aren’t bringing them any closer. Meanwhile, state and local governments across the country still need help, as do jobless workers, transit agencies, small businesses and public health agencies. Now is not the time to be stingy on any of these needs, because that will only make it harder for the Americans and the U.S. economy to pull themselves out of their current doldrums.

With this week’s performance over, Republicans and Democrats should get back to the bargaining table and resume the negotiations on a new relief bill that broke off in early August. House Democrats and the White House have moved toward the middle in recent weeks; Senate Republicans should start trying to keep up.