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McConnell, Trump are not on the same page on aid to states

If the Republican president wants federal aid to states, and the Republican Senate leader doesn't, who prevails? I wouldn't bet on McConnell.
Image: Donald Trump, Steven Mnuchin, Mitch McConnell, Kevin McCarthy
President Donald Trump talks to reporters before signing the coronavirus stimulus relief package in the Oval Office as, from left, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarty, R-Calif., look on, on March 27, 2020.Evan Vucci / AP file

A week ago today, as congressional leaders fought over the Paycheck Protection Program and a pending economic aid package, Donald Trump did something unexpected: the president suggested he was open to a key Democratic priority.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) were fighting to add federal aid to cash-strapped states in the aid bill, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said this was out of the question. Whether Trump knew which party was on which side of the divide is unclear, but he nevertheless led a conference call with senators and told them he's open to increased state aid.

This week, the rift grew quite a bit wider.

On Tuesday, the president published a tweet signaling his support for providing "fiscal relief" to state and local governments. A day later, McConnell, without specifically referencing Trump's position, rejected the idea, saying instead he prefers to see states with fiscal crises declare bankruptcy. (McConnell's office apparently went so far as to refer to state aid as "blue state bailouts," indifferent to the fact that plenty of red states are desperately in need of federal economic assistance, too.)

And yet, consider the line Trump touted at Tuesday's White House press briefing, reflecting on his conversation with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D):

"We mentioned briefly the state aid. We talked about that -- Governor Cuomo and myself -- and I agree with him on that. And I think most Republicans agree too, and Democrats. And that's part of phase four."

"Phase four" refers to the economic aid package that's supposed to follow the bill expected to pass the House today.

It's creating an increasingly awkward -- and not altogether expected -- governing dynamic, in which Pelosi, Schumer, Trump, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, and governors from both parties support federal aid for state and municipal governments, while McConnell and his GOP allies push in the opposite direction.

To the extent that substance plays a role in the dispute, McConnell's position is tough to defend. As we discussed yesterday, state and local governments are facing catastrophic conditions, not just in the health care sector as medical providers struggle to keep up with the pandemic, but also with overwhelmed unemployment systems and a dramatic loss in tax revenue. The more Republicans at the federal level resist throwing states and municipalities a lifeline, the more states -- which cannot legally run deficits -- will have to slash public services and public-sector jobs, even as the White House expects them to take the lead on a variety of critical fronts.

The impact on the economy -- in an election year -- should be obvious. For Trump, who's eager to see shuttered states re-open, and who doesn't want to see the unemployment rate get much worse, this shouldn't be an especially tough call.

McConnell, however, doesn't seem to care, which brings us back to the question of just how much juice the Senate Republican leader has right now.

McConnell was left out of the talks on the Families First Coronavirus Response Act; his CARES Act blueprint was ignored; and Democratic leaders went around him to strike a deal with the administration on the Paycheck Protection Act.

With this in mind, what happens if Democratic leaders, Trump, and Mnuchin reach an agreement on state aid, and the White House tells McConnell to get with the program? If the Republican president wants to help rescue state and local governments, and the Republican Senate leader doesn't, who prevails?

If the last couple of months are any indication, I wouldn't bet on McConnell.

Postscript: Congressional Democrats haven't asked for my advice, but if I were in their shoes, I'd start publicly questioning why Mitch McConnell is trying to undermine Donald Trump's re-election plans.