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McConnell, GOP senators balk at bipartisan economic relief package

As one senator put it, "Mitch McConnell is blocking bipartisan aid. Any characterization of this situation as 'Congress at an impasse' is a lie."
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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, speaks during a news conference following a weekly meeting with the Senate Republican caucus on Dec. 8. 2020 at the Capitol,Sarah Silbiger / Pool via AP

The need for an economic relief package is obvious and not in serious dispute. As the coronavirus pandemic intensifies, job growth is slowing, unemployment claims are rising, businesses are closing, and it's all poised to get worse with a series of benefits that will expire this month.

But what Americans need and what Americans are likely to get are two very different things. Politico reported overnight:

Congressional leaders are barely talking. Renegade centrists are trying to cut a deal that Republicans don't like. And the president is predominantly focused on overturning an election that he lost. It's the latest evidence Washington is broken: at the peak of the worst public health crisis in a century, the White House and Congress are struggling to deliver another round of relief. And time in the lame duck is quickly running out.

That's a largely compelling summary, but it doesn't fully identify the real culprits here.

In mid-May, nearly seven months ago, House Democrats approved an economic aid package, indifferent to the fact that it would give the economy a dramatic boost during Donald Trump's re-election campaign. Republican leaders not only ignored the proposal, and not only refused for months to come up with a counter-proposal, they also insisted there was no point in even having talks until Democrats started lowering their ambitions.

Fine, party leaders said. House Democrats passed another economic package, reducing the overall price tag by roughly $1 trillion, and asking GOP leaders to respond in kind. "No," Republicans replied.

This week, a bipartisan group of senators formally unveiled a compromise plan, with a price tag that's less than half of what Democratic leaders asked for, and short of what economists say is needed. But in desperation, Dems embraced the contours of this plan, too, hoping it would lead to a deal.

But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said this isn't good enough, either.

Sure, there's ample evidence that "Washington is broken," but it's worth being clear about who's standing over the wreck with a crowbar. As Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) explained yesterday, "Mitch McConnell is blocking bipartisan aid. Any characterization of this situation as 'Congress at an impasse' is a lie. There is a bipartisan, bicameral agreement. The President even wants something. The problem is McConnell. He's blocking the deal."

For what it's worth, if the bipartisan plan was brought to the floor for an up-or-down vote, it would likely pass. But McConnell won't schedule a vote that most Republicans don't like, and it probably couldn't overcome a filibuster anyway.

Part of the challenge is dealing with officials working at cross purposes. Democrats have prioritized economic relief; McConnell has prioritized a corporate liability shield; Senate Republicans have prioritized blocking aid to states; and Donald Trump has prioritized overturning an election he lost.

Complicating matters, government funding expires tonight -- yes, there's a possibility of a government shutdown tomorrow -- and while the Democratic-led House has already approved a one-week stopgap measure, the Republican-led Senate has run into some trouble on this front.

Watch this space.