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Any New Stimulus Package Overshadowed by SCOTUS Nomination

Hope for weekly unemployment benefit extensions, business aid and stimulus checks faded even more after Washington turned its focus to a Supreme Court vacancy.

WASHINGTON – The slim chances Congress will pass another coronavirus stimulus package appear to have gotten even more minuscule because of the partisan brawl erupting over filling Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat on the Supreme Court.

Ginsburg’s death Friday immediately sparked a political fight over when President Donald Trump’s yet-to-be-named nominee would come up for a vote. Since then, Washington has become consumed by the Republican-led Senate’s desire to approve Trump’s pick quickly – possibly before the Nov. 3 election – and Democrats’ efforts to stop it in hopes Joe Biden defeats Trump.

“I think it gets increasingly difficult,” Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., explained Monday about the prospects of passing a stimulus bill.

For months, Americans have held out hope Congress would come to a deal after many of the benefits it approved this spring to counter COVID-19’s impacts ran out. An extra $600 weekly unemployment benefit expired in July, a loan forgiveness program for small businesses also dried up and Americans haven’t seen another stimulus check.

Both parties have stressed the need for government relief to help Americans weather the pandemic. Yet neither Republicans nor Democrats have budged from their positions, leading to a now months-long impasse and with both sides blaming the other over the gap in relief. The fight over a new justice appears to have only heightened those tensions.

Top Democrats and White House negotiators spent weeks debating the size and scope of coronavirus stimulus legislation, with Democrats insisting on at least $2 trillion in aid and Republicans offering smaller bills, the most recent of which totaled about $300 billion.

Both sides have been hung up on a host of issues. Democrats have pushed to extend a weekly $600 added unemployment benefit while Republicans have offered $300 and $200 in different proposals. Democrats have advocated for funding for struggling state and local governments, while Republicans have pushed back on that idea, citing worries over the federal deficit and claims the money would bail out mismanaged Democratic cities.

The differences over priorities weren’t the only hurdle. Congress is scheduled to break for recess in early October ahead of the elections.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said the high court fight “adds complexity” to the stimulus debate. “We don’t have a whole of time,” he added, noting he wanted a deal before the current fiscal year ends Sept. 30.

Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, outside the Capitol on Monday, told reporters, “We should be focusing on pandemic relief. Is that possible?”

The Democrat continued, “Six months ago, we passed unanimously a big bipartisan pandemic relief bill. Four months ago the House acted. Majority Leader (Mitch) McConnell hasn’t even been in the negotiations, so how we close that gap eludes me.”

McConnell has promised to bring Trump’s nominee to the Senate floor and has said he has plenty of time to approve a judicial pick before Election Day.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said McConnell “defiled” the chamber and that moving forward on a Supreme Court nomination would “destroy the institution of the Senate.”

“It’s created a lot of mistrust and ill feeling in a way that I haven’t seen it occur in the Senate in a very long time,” Schumer said Tuesday at a news conference.

But even before Ginsburg’s death, tensions were high in Washington, and the prospects of passing another relief package were looking more unlikely. Both sides had been deadlocked and appeared no closer to a deal even after months of negotiations between the White House and congressional Democrats. Republicans never took up Democrats’ more than $3 trillion bill the House passed in May. The $300 billion offering by Republicans, considered a final attempt at any form of relief before the election, was blocked by Democrats Sept. 10.

McConnell on Wednesday took issue with the attacks from Democrats, explaining they were acting as though the “sky is falling” over the Supreme Court pick, something he has said Democrats would move forward with if they held the majority.

“The American people do not need any more revisionist history lectures, any more threats or any more performative outrage from the side that launched this unfortunate fight, and escalated it time after time after time,” he said on the Senate floor. “There is one right path before us. It does right by the judiciary, the Senate, the yet-unnamed nominee, and the American people. It is a fair hearing, a fair process and a fair vote.”

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany cast blame on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who has been leading the negotiations for Democrats along with Schumer. McEnany said it’s up to Pelosi to get the negotiations moving again, accusing her of “engaging in political drama.”

Government can function in times of deep partisan divide, which raises questions about why lawmakers have made such little progress on coronavirus relief – an issue where there is widespread public support, and more importantly, need, said Lauren Wright, a political scientist at Princeton University.

“Both parties probably see the potential of a Supreme Court battle to galvanize their base of voters in an election season, no matter the outcome,” Wright said.

But, she said, relegating coronavirus relief to the back-burner carries potential costs for both parties.

“Supreme Court seats are indeed important to partisans who pay close attention to politics and already have strong ideological preferences and attitudes,” Wright said. “But the virus and the destruction it has caused to everyday lives and the economy is important to a much wider swath of Americans, including the independents and moderate voters who will be critical to 2020 outcomes.”

Amid the bickering, some lawmakers and officials have continued to express some optimism that a relief bill could still be achieved.

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said the nomination of a new Supreme Court justice wouldn’t necessarily slow down the approval of a new COVID-19-relief package because the stimulus discussions are taking place primarily in the House, which has no role in confirming a new justice.

“This stimulus could be House driven,” Meadows said Tuesday on FOX Business Network’s Mornings with Maria. “We know that Speaker Pelosi is really in control of that, even though it takes the Senate to help work on that.”

Meadows has suggested smaller pieces of legislation to address relief for the airline industry, enhanced unemployment benefits or assistance for small businesses, but Pelosi has repeatedly objected to this idea.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., said Tuesday the House was still focused on providing relief to Americans, backing Pelosi’s approach in pushing for a broader bill.

“Our focus remains on getting a deal so we can provide meaningful relief, in the midst of a deadly pandemic, to the American people,” Jeffries explained. “That is our North Star. And we have confidence in Speaker Pelosi, one of the best legislative negotiators in the history of the Republic.”

Many moderates have continued to demand a deal on another package, stressing the needs of their constituents and putting pressure on leadership, including Pelosi, to come back to the negotiating table and bring a bill forward. The pressure led Pelosi to announce the House would remain in session until a deal was brokered.

While Pelosi has continued to talk with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, one of the lead White House negotiators on stimulus, the pair have largely focused their discussions on coming to a deal on a spending bill to avert a government shutdown at the end of September. The House approved a bill Tuesday that would extend current government funding levels and punt negotiations over a number of hot-button issues until Dec. 11. It now goes to the Senate for approval and then, if approved, will head to the White House for Trump’s signature.

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