Pandemic political divide: Bipartisan response turns bitter over relief spending, reopening

The GOP supports reopening states faster. Democrats say more testing is needed.

May 14, 2020, 7:08 PM

What started just weeks ago as a unified, emergency effort by Congress to get trillions of dollars to ordinary Americans and businesses in record time has now turned increasingly partisan -- as Democrats and Republicans fight over spending more pandemic relief money and how fast to reopen the economy.

“We cannot borrow enough money to prop this economy up forever,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said during a digital appearance for the Trump campaign on Monday. He said lawmakers need to “begin to encourage the governors around the country, who have the decision-making ability, to open up the economy.

Senate Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell wears a mask as he walks through a hallway at the Capitol, May 11, 2020 in Washington.
Alex Wong/Getty Images, FILE

As the dust begins to settle on the $2 trillion coronavirus relief package passed in March, McConnell has urged a "wait and see" approach on passing additional coronavirus aid legislation, echoing the the White House in saying there needs to be a "pause" to see what impact the money is having.

McConnell and Senate Republicans, responding to the GOP base, are taking a gamble of sorts, that the economy will recover fast enough that another relief package won't be needed -- and thus no politically risky vote to add billions more to the deficit.

Democrats want more immediate action.

"He wants us to just pause," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday. "But families know that hunger doesn't take a pause, not having a job doesn't take a pause, not being able to pay the rent doesn't take a pause."

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Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi speaks during her weekly press conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 14, 2020.
Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

A familiar political standoff

On Tuesday, Pelosi unveiled a proposal for a new $3 trillion coronavirus relief package which includes, among other things, another round of direct payments to Americans and $1 trillion in aid for state and local governments. The package also allocates $75 billion in funds for testing, contact tracing and isolation measures.

But sources have told ABC News the package, to be voted on Friday, is largely a political messaging bill -- a chance for rank and file Democrats to get their priorities on the record.

And Republicans have made it clear the bill will be dead on arrival as soon as it reaches the GOP-controlled Senate chamber.

“The Democratic House is still not back in Washington. Their constitutional duty stations are still unmanned. But Democrats cannot stop salivating over the possibilities for partisan gain," McConnell said on the Senate floor Thursday, reverting to the kind of familiar partisan rhetoric Washington heard -- before the pandemic.

“This week, the Speaker published an 1,800-page seasonal catalog of left-wing oddities and called it a coronavirus relief bill," he said.

Since the early stages of the crisis -- and negotiations over aid -- Democrats have argued that the coronavirus crisis is a health crisis before it is an economic one.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has argued that opening the economy without implementing more testing would endanger more American lives.

Sen. Chuck Schumer speaks on the floor of the senate, May 13, 2020.

“So there's a great urgency here, and there are really two separate and simultaneous emergencies: one in our healthcare system and another in the economy,” Schumer said in March. “We have to deal with both, and if we don't solve the one in our health care, the economy will continue to get bad no matter what we do for it.”

As both sides stake out their positions, Democrats are unlikely to budge on funding for testing and contact tracing, which many say states say they cannot reopen without.

“We have increased our testing, but not by the factor that’s necessary to safely reopen our economy,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., on Tuesday. “There are a lot of outstanding questions as to why the administration isn’t doing more to create more testing capability in this country.“

US President Donald Trump looks on during a meeting with military leaders and his national security team in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, DC on May 9, 2020.
AFP via Getty Images, FILE

Political pressure on all sides

With America’s unemployment rate reaching 14.7% in April, an job losses topping 35 million, President Donald Trump is relentlessly predicting that circumstances will soon change and that Americans will see “tremendous growth” in the back half of the year and into 2021.

“America wants to be open and Americans want to be open,” Trump he says repeatedly.

But there's a stark political divide on that as well.

An ABC/Ipsos poll released Friday showed 92 percent of Democratic voters surveyed said opening the economy right now was not worth it because it could lead to increased loss of life.

Only 35 percent of Republican voters agreed with that view.

The survey also found that if restrictions were lifted by states and localities, those who identify as Republican would also be more likely than those who identify as Democrat to resume certain activities, such as getting a haircut, going to church, staying in a hotel, dining at a restaurant or flying.

Congressional Republicans could be political vulnerable if economic prospects don’t improve, Doug Heye, a former communications director for the Republican National Committee and longtime GOP analyst told ABC News.

“Short-term messaging right now that Republicans are hearing and that voters are sending are let’s get back to normal let’s open up businesses, Heye said.

“The vulnerability is if we do that, and we do that too soon and we see a spike in new cases, that could cause a serious health crisis, further deepen the economic crisis, and that could cause a real electoral crisis for Republicans in November.”

McConnell, in his understated way, acknowledged Wednesday that Trump’s response to the coronavirus is a factor in the fate of the 23 Republican senators defending their seats in November.

“It’s a challenging environment,” McConnell told reporters. “It has been consistently throughout this cycle.”

PHOTO: Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases  testifies remotely from his home during a Senate Committee hearing on the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Washington, May 12, 2020.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases is seen in a frame grab from a video feed as he testifies remotely from his home during a Senate Committee for Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions hearing on the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Washington, May 12, 2020.
Jim Bourg/Reuters, FILE

The Republican push for re-opening came to head Tuesday when Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, testified before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions that the "consequences could be really serious" if states re-opened too soon and without plans that accounted for robust testing and contact tracing strategies.

The committee’s ranking member, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., agreed with Fauci.

“We can’t expect people to go back to work or to restaurants or to confidently send their kids to school, if there isn’t clear, detailed guidance about how to do that safely,” Murray said.

But Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., repeatedly insisted it was time to begin reopening, challenging Fauci’s authority.

“I think we ought to have a little bit of humility in our belief that we know what’s best for the economy,” Paul said. “And as much as I respect you, Dr. Fauci, I don’t think you’re the end-all. I don’t think you’re the one person that gets to make a decision.”

The political divide is just as evident in state-by-state surveys of reopening strategies.

States with Republican governors are increasingly coming back online, allowing some non-essential businesses to re-open with proper safety protocols.

In Georgia, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp opened barbershops, hair salons and tattoo parlors on April 27. In Iowa and Arkansas, stay at home orders were never issued. Meanwhile, states with Democratic governors like Virginia have extended some restrictions at least through the end of May.

Trump has told governors they will “call their own shots” on reopening, praised many, but he has also made clear he believes that he's pushing the economy to reopen even if it risks more deaths.

Heye said if that is Trump’s message, Republican lawmakers and governors are will likely support it.

“If Trump says we’re leading the way and doing an amazing job, by and large that’s where they’re going to be,” Heye said. “By and large, once you put on the red hat, you keep the red hat on.”

ABC News' Mariam Khan contributed to this report.

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