Greenwich Mean Time at the Royal Observatory in greater London is the global standard.
Clocks all over the United Kingdom and the globe rely on GMT to set watches and clocks. You can almost hear the Big Ben’s tolling bells over the BBC.
But on Capitol Hill, you don’t even need to tell time at all. One just needs to know when it’s “the 11th hour.”
If Congress made clocks, they’d lack all digits except for 11. And, for good measure, they’d probably set the hands as close to midnight as possible.
Congress constitutes its own temporal distortion. Its own wrinkles in the space-time continuum. Congress sometimes serves as a literal black hole, consuming time. It’s either nothing o’clock – or the 11th hour. That’s because little of consequence gets done on Capitol Hill until the 11th hour. And after months of a time vacuum amid coronavirus, the clock is ticking again on Capitol Hill. It’s the 11th hour, as lawmakers struggle to finalize the next round of pandemic legislation.
“This won’t get done until the 11th hour,” said one senior administration source to Fox about the bill recently.
Sure about that?
“Yes,” replied the source. “Because it has to.”
It’s natural that Congress is up against one of its infamous “cliffs” again with the latest coronavirus package. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., suspected it would come to this – even if one doesn’t agree with her approach or politics. Pelosi knew Democrats were in the driver’s seat back in May. The Speaker didn’t even break a sweat pushing through the fifth phase of coronavirus legislation, totaling a staggering $3 trillion. This came as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., declared a “pause” in coronavirus spending – just before the pandemic ramped up again.
Pelosi understood two things back then: One, the pandemic would inevitably require another bill. It was just a matter of time. Two, the bill would need to be big. That’s why she went for $3 trillion. There would be issues about contact tracing and testing. Evictions. Schools would debate how and if to reopen. The economy would remain in shambles. And, the speaker also knew that whatever happened, President Trump and Republicans would likely be divided. They’d need Democrats to pass the bill. Democrats hold the House. But with only 53 Senate Republicans, they’d need least seven Democrats to hit 60 yeas to overcome a filibuster.
McConnell told Republicans weeks ago he’d write the next bill in his office. After the legislation wasn’t ready last week, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin made a point of showing up at the Capitol twice over the weekend. That sent the message to skeptical Republicans that the legislation was not only something McConnell wanted, but something the president supported. After all, chasms remain between GOPers over re-upping additional unemployment benefits and even the sheer cost of another bill. Simultaneously, worries abound among vulnerable Senate Republicans that a bill won’t come soon enough – or they’ll be blamed. Consider the fates of Sens. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, and Susan Collins, R-Maine. Thus, there are splits in the Senate Republican Conference as they race to forge a measure most can agree on. Before all is said and done, Republicans will likely have to support wage replacement, incentives for firms to rehire workers and extras to coax idled workers back to the job.
“Half of the Republicans are going to vote no,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said recently on Fox News. “That’s just a fact.”
It’s doubtful the Senate could even approve the measure, regardless of who wrote the bill. That speaks to the extraordinary GOP dissonance over how to approach the pandemic.
“I was in the wrong meeting again,” said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., leaving the Senate GOP Conference lunch Tuesday. “This was the big spending, big government meeting. I’m sorry. Wrong meeting.”
Any surprise we are at the 11th hour?
The true deadline is the end of the week. Extra unemployment benefits Congress approved for workers to cope with the pandemic expire on Friday night. And the rent comes due for millions then, too.
You can practically hear the chimes tolling.
Late Monday, McConnell trotted out a series of proposals. Despite the deep GOP division about the proposals, he immediately focused his fire on Democrats.
“They need to put aside the partisan stonewalling we saw on police reform, rediscover the spirit of urgency that got the CARES Act across the finish line, and quickly join us around the negotiating table,” said McConnell. “The Senate will not waste time with pointless partisanship.”
The Kentucky Republican added, “We cannot have a Senate minority decide in June it is done legislating until November.”
McConnell’s effort to excoriate Democrats was hard to fathom since Democrats demanded legislation since May. Moreover, McConnell’s problems lie on his side of the aisle. That’s where the chasms stretch deep. So it was easy for McConnell to focus on adversaries across the aisle.
The GOP could glom the plans together in one bill – or, conceivably, operate as standalone packages.
Why? Republicans lack cohesion behind what measures they can support. It’s not even entirely clear each of the GOP provisions rolled out could pass as its own standalone bill.
So the GOP tactic?
Blame the Democrats.
Such a gambit was on display over the weekend as Meadows indicated there would be no payroll tax cut in the next coronavirus bill – a signature demand of the president – because Democrats rejected it.
By Fox News’ count, there were only 10 to 12 Senate Republicans in favor of the payroll tax cut.
McConnell is taking this approach because his side is in a pickle. He needs to protect his vulnerable members facing competitive reelection bids this fall. So, this maneuver gives GOP senators the opportunity to demonstrate what they are for – and try to pass something. He could dare Democrats to oppose some of the plans – even if he lacks the votes on his side of the aisle to actually pass the measures through his chamber.
No wonder McConnell has indicated a final agreement on the next coronavirus measure may take a while. And, Fox News is told the Senate could remain in session deep into August before this is resolved.
Under normal circumstances, McConnell would be anxious to rush the Senate into the August recess so Republicans facing competitive reelection bids could campaign back home. But the pandemic – and the fact that Republicans are on the ropes, hurtling toward November – could mean it’s better for GOPers to actually stay in Washington and tangle with Democrats during August. The effort could give voters the appearance that Republicans are trying to forge an agreement on coronavirus legislation – and Democrats are standing in the way.
But any coronavirus bill is going to need significant Democratic support to reach completion. Republicans will need Democratic help to overcome a filibuster. And, Pelosi continues to hold many of the cards.
Something will have to give to get an agreement. But it’s likely these machinations will take a few weeks.
Fox News is told there is very little chance the sides can advance a bill by the end of the week. That’s when additional unemployment insurance expires. But missing the Friday deadline would likely amplify pressure to forge an accord soon.
The sides are expected to take the Senate Republican proposals and see where they can whittle away obstacles. The most nettlesome issues are unemployment insurance and funding for state and local governments.
Administration and Congressional sources indicate the only thing which might be able to pass is a “skinny” version. That would cost $1.5 to $1.7 trillion. Granted, that is still $1.3 trillion short of what House Democrats passed in their Phase 5 bill in May. Pelosi will have to secure some big wins to ultimately support a less expensive bill.
We are told to expect these talks to spill into August, without immediate resolution.
At least, until it’s the 11th hour.