WASHINGTON — Beset by internal divisions and clashes with the Trump administration, Senate Republicans downplayed the prospects Tuesday of enacting new coronavirus relief before key programs like boosted unemployment payments expire.
Republicans continue to negotiate among themselves but broadly oppose an extension beyond this week of the $600 weekly federal jobless benefit that millions of Americans are collecting. Complicating Republican talks is the White House, which is trying to cut funding for COVID-19 testing and demanding a payroll tax cut that many in the president's party oppose.
Talks with Democrats, who will be needed to pass the bill, haven't even begun.
At a meeting of Republican lawmakers Tuesday, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas cast doubt on the spending talks, asking, "What the hell are we doing?" according to a Republican source familiar with his remarks.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who was more optimistic about negotiations, and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows were at the meeting.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said any bill must include enhanced liability protections, but he offered few other details of what he will propose.
"I'm going to introduce a bill in the next few days that is a starting place that enjoys fairly significant support among Republican senators, probably not everyone," he said after the meeting.
McConnell said Senate Republicans "overwhelmingly" oppose extending the $600-a-week unemployment supplement because they believe it's a deterrent to work, but he said there's "room for negotiation."
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said after a caucus meeting Tuesday, "There's a lot of disagreement amongst the members."
In May, the Democratic-led House passed a $3.4 trillion bill that would extend the emergency jobless benefits through January; approve additional aid for families, workers and businesses; and tack on other progressive provisions. Senate Republicans have roundly rejected the bill but are struggling to unite around an alternative that would satisfy competing priorities within their party.
"We haven't reached a conclusion on anything," said Sen. John Kennedy, R-La.
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McConnell said that after he gets Republicans on board, his proposal will be used as a starting point for bipartisan discussion. He needs at least seven Democratic votes.
"Clearly, they have the ability to prevent us from passing anything, and that's been their mindset lately," he said. "And so I think it's pretty clear they're not irrelevant. We do have to talk to them."
Asked later whether he expects a bill to pass by end of next week, McConnell laughed and said "no," according to a pool report.
'All very 60,000-foot'
After the meeting, Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., said that Senate Republicans came to "some recognition that we need to do something more" with jobless benefits but that there was no agreement on what.
One of Trump's top priorities, the payroll tax cut, came up "only briefly" and without details, Cassidy said. Funding for state and local governments is "still a little bit of a work in progress," he said.
There were no discussions of how much money to put into the Paycheck Protection Program, the loan program for small businesses. Senators and administration officials didn't discuss the parameters of another round of stimulus payments.
"It was all very 60,000-foot," Cassidy said.
Divisions are widening between Senate Republicans, some of whom are pushing against new spending and others of whom eager to return home next month with assistance for their ailing states.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who faces a tough re-election battle, said there are "far higher priorities" than a payroll tax cut, which she called "extremely expensive" with limited impact.
"It would only benefit individuals who are working. It also would displace other spending that I think is far more important," Collins told reporters Tuesday.
McConnell also cast doubt on the idea.
"There are some differences of opinion on the question of the payroll tax cut and whether that's the best way to go. And so we're still in discussion with the administration on that," he said.
Even Pat Toomey, R-Pa., one of the most pro-business, anti-tax members of the Senate, is undecided on whether to support a payroll tax cut, he told NBC News on Tuesday.
McConnell said his one red line is that the bill must include liability protections for businesses, schools, hospitals and other entities as long as they're not "grossly negligent" upon reopening.
A headache for party leaders is that some are dead set against new federal spending.
"I just came out of a Republican caucus meeting that could be sort of the Bernie bros progressive caucus," said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., comparing GOP senators to supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. "I'm alarmed that we're talking about spending another trillion dollars we don't have."
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said he's "not supporting any new spending right now," and he suggested that Congress instead repurpose funds that have already been authorized.
Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said that McConnell wants to limit the cost of a new bill to $1 trillion and that some senators said that would constrain their policy options.
The Republican divisions are likely to strengthen the negotiating hand of Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., because failing to act while the number of coronavirus cases is rising could be politically disastrous for Trump and his party heading into the election.
Cassidy said top administration officials are holding preliminary talks with Democrats.
"Mnuchin and Meadows are meeting with Pelosi and Schumer, I think, this afternoon," he said. "They said we're not negotiating, we're just kind of establishing the framework by which to proceed."