Sen. Josh Hawley is not happy that the leading coronavirus proposals lack another round of direct payments to Americans — and he’s taking his case straight to President Donald Trump.
The Missouri Republican lobbied Trump to veto any coronavirus aid bill that does not contain a second tranche of checks to Americans in a phone call on Saturday. And Hawley said the president listened intently as he flew home on Air Force One from a rally in Georgia.
“I said, ‘I think it's vital that any relief include direct payments, and I'm not gonna vote for it if it doesn't.’ And I also urged him to veto any bill that did not have direct payments in it,” Hawley said in an interview on Monday.
Hawley argues that it is “wild” that a Senate GOP proposal and a bipartisan $908 billion plan offers aid but doesn’t include more checks like those $1,200 payments in March’s massive CARES Act package. And he said Trump seemed receptive to the argument.
“We had a good conversation about it. And, you know, a pretty thorough conversation. He asked a number of questions about the state of play of the different proposals. And I think it's fair to say that he was surprised at the direction that some of these were headed,” Hawley said.
The White House declined to comment on Hawley’s conversation with Trump. Judd Deere, a White House spokesperson, said, “President Trump understands that Americans are hurting and need relief, which is why the White House continues to engage with those in congressional leadership who are serious about moving quickly to approve billions in aid.”
If Trump were to take an antagonistic approach toward a bipartisan, bicameral proposal of $908 billion in new aid, it could easily sink the effort and delay a new round of relief until Joe Biden is sworn in as president in January. Trump, who hasn’t been deeply involved in talks since negotiations broke down before the election, seemed to bless the bipartisan effort last week, buoying Republicans like Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana who are trying to strike a compromise. But that support is now in question.
Hawley argued it’s not too late to change course and that direct payments should be the “cornerstone” of any package, not something that’s viewed as too expensive to tack onto money for governments, hospitals and schools. The House Democrats' relief proposals, which Senate Republicans have rejected, include direct payments to Americans.
And it’s not just Trump who is interested. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) also spoke to Hawley on Saturday about the need to focus on payments to Americans. Both oppose efforts from centrists that leave this provision out.
“Getting the $1,200 direct payments to workers during this unprecedented crisis should be a slam dunk. Sen. Hawley seems to understand that, and Sen. Sanders will talk to anyone to get this done,” said Faiz Shakir, who managed Sanders’ presidential campaign.
Adding payments into the mix now could complicate the fragile framework that Republican and Democratic negotiators are trying to finalize into legislative text by mid-week. That effort includes money for state and local governments and gives a temporary liability shield to business from coronavirus legislation, an attempt to triangulate the disagreements between Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) suggested the only way to incorporate direct payments would be to drop $160 billion for state and local government from the discussion.
“I'll tell you what they'd probably pick up a lot of support for, is if you subbed out the state and local money and made those payments directly to individuals instead of state and local governments,” Thune said. “We'll lose a lot of votes on our side just on that $160 billion dollars they're talking about for state and local.”
The bipartisan group has begun referring itself to the “908 coalition,” a reference to the top-line spending number. And with $908 billion as its ceiling, adding direct payments may be too difficult at this point.
“The top-line number was 908 and it’s very expensive. And it just wouldn’t fit,” Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) said. “It would certainly go beyond what we’ve agreed on so far.”
And senators are having enough trouble producing legislative text for the bipartisan compromise, with a deadlock over liability reform. Negotiators met in person on Monday evening, but they remained at odds. Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) tried to strike a deal over the weekend, but with little success.
Cornyn said Durbin “wanted to have some sort of moratorium or stay on any litigation involving Covid-19 for six months. But that's not adequate.” Republicans prefer a far longer runway, but Democrats are unmoved.
And several other progressive politicians endorsed Hawley and Sanders’ fight on Monday evening, further complicating the politics. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) said she would not support a bill without a relief check, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) sounded down on the bipartisan effort that doesn’t include the checks.
“Direct checks are an excellent way to get money into the hands of people who desperately need it,” Warren said. “I am very worried that the dollar amount is too low [in the bipartisan framework]. ... I’m also very worried about the liability provisions. We cannot agree to release employers who have caused employees to get sick.”
McConnell, meanwhile, has put forward a smaller bill that he says the president would sign, and has been noncommittal so far about the bipartisan measure. But Hawley, who is a close ally of Trump’s, says all those proposals have it backwards.
“Working families and individuals ought to be first for Covid relief, and then we'll talk about everything else. I see some of these comments about ‘well, we just don't have any money left over,'” Hawley said. “We don't have money left over for people? We can give it to state governments, to businesses, but we don't have any money for people? I just think that's crazy.”