To the great surprise of absolutely no one, the vote on the “skinny” stimulus package put forward by Senate Republicans failed, as it was always intended to do. Following a round of criticism for his handling of the stimulus negotiations before the August recess, Majority Leader McConnell has found his footing again, completing a masterful stroke even in failure.
McConnell succeeded on multiple fronts, even as the bill died in the Senate. The vote tally was 52-47, well short of the 60-vote threshold required to overcome the filibuster. Every Republican save one (we see you Rand Paul) fell in line, finally providing the united front that McConnell had hoped to present the first time around. Paul’s nay vote is ultimately a protest vote, as he (and indeed everyone) knew the bill was only the staking out of a position by McConnell.
Further success for McConnell comes in getting Democratic lawmakers on the record as voting ‘nay’ on a stimulus. The fact that they voted against a laughable imitation of a true stimulus package doesn’t matter nearly as much as the dozens of Republican campaign ad lines that will claim Democratic Senator X voted against helping the American people.
Now that McConnell has whipped his caucus into line (at least in posture, if not in reality), the real work can start. But the question remains: why should Republicans, fully aware of the state of the 2020 election polls, do anything to ease the burden being felt by millions of Americans directly affected by Covid-19?
McConnell is an unabashed realpolitik disciple, and so we can dispense of the ridiculous notion that he might put the needs of average citizens first. If that was the case, there would be bi-partisan support for enhanced unemployment benefits, eviction moratoriums, and social distancing. Half of McConnell’s caucus has already moved on to the idea that herd immunity will save us (doubtful) or that a miracle vaccine is just around the corner (ignoring that the segments of the population that believe Covid-19 is a hoax strongly overlaps with anti-vaxxers, making distribution of a vaccine fraught with issues).
Instead, with polls showing President Trump underwater in multiple swing states, and an ever-increasing tailspin in the White House (currently pivoting from a controversial Atlantic piece alleging Trump disparaged the military and war heroes to revelations coming from Bob Woodward’s upcoming book Rage), the incentives for McConnell and other Republicans on the hill have shifted wildly.
If you accept the ousting of President Trump this November as a fait accompli, then the Republican-controlled Senate has no incentive to pass any stimulus bill, however skinny. Instead, allowing the country to wallow and punting back and forth between the Senate and the White House to stall for time allows for President Trump to continue to paint himself as the only possible savior while also ensuring that if Trump does lose (as seems likely) then the disaster will fall into the lap of Joe Biden.
If McConnell’s goal is to limit the Republican loss of legislative power to one election cycle, then leaving Biden with the worst possible scenario is a major victory for Republicans. The President’s party generally sees some reverses in the midterm election, potentially allowing for a revival of McConnell’s obstructionist policies. Of course, all of this depends on the composition of the Senate following the election. If Biden is swept in on a blue wave the Senate could fall to Democrats as well, setting up a cataclysmic showdown over potentially ending the filibuster (often rhetorically called the “nuclear option”).
As the election nears, President Trump might consider ordering more stimulus through executive action, such as a direct payment to Americans of the kind that was sent out in April but was excluded from the “skinny” stimulus. As what is good for President Trump and what is good for Republicans writ large grow further apart, President Trump must tread carefully to avoid suddenly being set adrift by his own party.