Sidelined in the final days of stimulus talks, McConnell again learns the risk of getting ahead of Trump

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) speaks to reporters after a meeting on the massive economic rescue package that passed the Senate Wednesday.
(Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

The negotiations over the roughly $2-trillion economic rescue package had gone on for more than three days — hour after hour of haggling to shape one of the largest government economic interventions in U.S. history.

Finally, as Tuesday night changed to Wednesday morning, two men stepped forward to tell reporters they had reached a deal — the secretary of the Treasury and the minority leader of the Senate.

The majority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, was relegated to role of announcing the deal a short time later on the Senate floor.

With his mastery of rules and tactics and control over his caucus, McConnell has developed a reputation as one of the Senate’s most powerful majority leaders. But in the talks to shape the massive bailout bill, he was effectively sidelined for much of the final days as Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin and Democratic leader Charles E. Schumer of New York negotiated.


For McConnell, the events provided another lesson of the dangers of getting ahead of Trump.

During much of Trump’s presidency, McConnell has let the president or the House take the lead on policy and focused on what he’s made his top priority — reshaping the federal judiciary.

He embraced that approach after a couple of high-profile cases in which he got ahead of Trump and was stung, most notably in December 2018 when he led the Senate in approving a bill to fund government agencies only to have Trump reject it and precipitate a lengthy government shutdown.

By any account, McConnell’s focus on judges has been successful, filling hundreds of judicial vacancies across the country.

When the coronavirus crisis began to worsen, McConnell initially stuck to that playbook, telling House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) to work a deal out with the administration. That led to an initial $8.3-billion spending package, which passed with little problem.

McConnell faced more problems when Pelosi and Mnuchin negotiated a second, larger bill in mid-March. Many Republican senators weren’t happy with that deal, which expanded paid sick leave for workers and pumped billions of dollars to states for food programs and unemployment benefits.

Senate Republicans had to be cajoled into passing that bill, with the promise that they would lead on the next effort.


So, last week, when Congress began drafting a third bill, McConnell took a decisive lead; unveiling a $1-trillion proposal focused on key priorities supported by Republicans and the White House. Those included hundreds of millions of dollars in direct payments to workers, but left out many low-income Americans. When Democrats and some Republicans pushed back, he created four bipartisan task forces and tasked to them to work at “warp speed” to draft language.

By Saturday, when it was clear a deal wasn’t emerging, McConnell cobbled together a version that combined parts of his original plan with what the task forces had agreed to. He tried to jam the bill through on Sunday by scheduling a procedural vote that he gambled Democrats would be forced to approve out of concern that if the bill appeared stalled, financial markets would crash on Monday morning.

“Now we’re at the point in the discussion where people will shortly have to say yes or no, and I’m confident given the desire of the country to see an outcome, that we’ll get to yes,” he told reporters in a news conference Sunday.

He miscalculated. Pelosi had returned to Washington by Saturday night; Democrats were unsatisfied with the bill McConnell had put forward and began talking about introducing one of their own. And the administration, anxious for a deal, was already reaching out to Schumer.

McConnell said Democrats should simply accept his bill. “It would be best for the country if the House would take it up and pass it just like we did earlier this week when the House passed a bill that I had only marginal participation in because the country was desperate for results,” McConnell said.

Schumer refused. Because McConnell’s bill needed the support of 60 senators to move forward, Democrats were able to block it, doing so Sunday and again Monday when McConnell tried a second time to move forward.

A frustrated McConnell took to the Senate floor to urge the Democratic minority in the Senate to move.

“When the Democratic House passed their ‘phase two’ bill, even though Senate Republicans would have written it very differently, we sped it through the Senate and passed it quickly without even amending it,” he said. “I literally told my own Republicans colleagues to ‘gag and vote for it.’

“It is time for that good faith to be reciprocated. It is time for Democrats to stop playing politics and step up to the plate.”

Schumer’s response was cutting: He would update McConnell and the Senate when he and Mnuchin reached an agreement.

“The negotiations continue no more than 30 feet away from the floor of the Senate in our offices where the real progress is taking place,” he said. “Once we have an agreement that everyone can get behind, we are prepared to speed up the consideration of that agreement on the floor.”

Pelosi piled on, with a spokesperson telling reporters that the speaker, unlike McConnell, knew better to call a vote without having the votes lined up.

McConnell remained part of the ensuing negotiations, aides say, with Mnuchin shuttling between Schumer’s and McConnell’s offices multiple times a day.

But as Senate Republicans publicly objected that the bill had moved too far toward Democratic priorities and urged Trump to oppose it, the president and Mnuchin brushed aside their concerns, publicly praising Schumer as a negotiating partner.

Before the Senate voted to pass the bill Wednesday evening, McConnell said history would determine if the changes Democrats got by the delay were worth it.

Democrats immediately crowed about their wins. Pelosi told reporters Thursday that she was proud of the bill that came out and that “we did jiu-jitsu on it, that it went from a corporate-first proposal that the Republicans put forth in the Senate to a Democratic workers-first legislation.”

Republicans dispute that, saying the final result isn’t substantially different than what McConnell and Senate Republicans originally proposed.

“That was an outright lie,” House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) told reporters.

The record suggests otherwise, however — all but two Senate Republicans voted on Wednesday to strip a key provision expanding unemployment benefits out of the bill, saying it would damage the economy. When that move failed, they unanimously voted to approve the bill.

On Thursday before the House took up the Senate bill, Pelosi said that she and the House would take the lead on a fourth package, though the Republican and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate should work together on it.

“We really should be operating four corners, the four House and Senate Democrats and Republicans, as we go along to find as much common ground as we can,” Pelosi said.