WASHINGTON — On one side of the Capitol Tuesday, Republicans strode through the Senate halls projecting bullish confidence about the coming fight over the Supreme Court vacancy. On the other side, the Federal Reserve chairman delivered a sobering reminder about the pandemic-battered economy.
“The path ahead continues to be highly uncertain,” Jerome Powell told a House committee, warning of risks if Congress does not pass another stimulus package. “I think it’s likely that more fiscal support will be needed.”
The partisan battle shaping up over the confirmation of President Trump’s nominee to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg has barely begun. But it is already vacuuming up enormous attention on Capitol Hill and overshadowing negotiations to provide desperately needed aid to workers, businesses, and state and local governments struggling because of a pandemic that now has killed more than 200,000 Americans.
It leaves the path to passing another stimulus bill before the election narrower than ever.
“I don’t see it now,” said Richard Shelby of Alabama, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, following a six-second pause when a reporter asked about prospects for a deal.
“I don’t know the answer to that,” said Republican Senator Josh Hawley, of Missouri, in response to the same question.
“It seems unlikely to me,” said Republican Senator Kevin Cramer, of North Dakota.
“I always remain optimistic about that, but right now, it seems like the C.R.,” he said, referring to a spending bill to keep the government open, “and then obviously the Supreme Court vacancy are sucking a lot of oxygen out of the room.”
That sense of doubt among Senate Republicans about more coronavirus relief money was a marked contrast from their growing certainty that they will be able to quickly move forward with Trump’s court nominee — even though they do not know yet who it will be — as Utah Senator Mitt Romney became the latest possible GOP defector to get on board with a confirmation vote this fall.
And while they blamed Democrats for the inaction, it underscored how the coming nomination fight is likely to push aside efforts to address other problems in the country.
“This is going to be the most contentious court battle in the history of modern politics,” said Ryan Williams, a Republican strategist and former aide to Romney. “It will grind every other legislative item to a halt . . . and it will become so divisive and toxic that it’ll make it very difficult for both sides to negotiate a bipartisan deal.”
The pandemic has cost millions of jobs and devastated certain segments of the economy, like restaurants and tourism. In the early days of the downturn, Congress moved swiftly to inject trillions of dollars into the economy, including $1,200 checks to individuals, but since then, negotiations on another stimulus bill have gone nowhere.
“It’s hard to say that this has anything to do with the debate over the Republicans stealing another Supreme Court seat, because they weren’t moving forward on any relief package at all,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who vowed that Democrats would pin inaction squarely on Republicans in the coming election.
Democrats in particular are warning that the economic downturn — which Powell himself said has fallen hardest on low-wage workers, women, Black people, and Hispanic people — won’t abate without more help from Congress.
“There seems to be this narrative developing that both the virus and the recession are behind us and we just have to focus on the SCOTUS,” said Jared Bernstein, an economist who advises Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. “Neither of those are true.”
Republicans in the Senate refused to take up the $3 trillion stimulus bill passed by House Democrats in May. Senate Democrats blocked a $300 billion plan offered by Republicans in that chamber earlier this month, saying it was far too small.
Last week, Trump offered a glimmer of hope to those who want a deal when he said he liked a $1.5 trillion stimulus proposal drawn up by a bipartisan group in the House. But experts say any compromise is probably dead in the water now, too.
“No chance in hell, in my opinion,” said David Barker, the director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington, DC. “Both because all the energy will be on the confirmation and because such confirmations tend to exacerbate partisan polarization, because they trigger ‘culture war’ disputes and because the stakes are so high.”
There were still signs of a willingness to reach across the aisle on Tuesday — particularly as both sides worked feverishly and reached a deal to avert a government shutdown at the end of the month. Democrats insisted they are hopeful a deal can be reached on a stimulus, too.
“I would hope there’s room for an agreement this week — I don’t know if that’s the case, but that’s what I would hope,” said Representative Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the number two House Democrat.
But in the Senate, both sides were blaming each other for the inaction — hardly a sign of productive negotiations.
“Talk to Mitch McConnell, you’re interviewing the wrong guy,” said Senator Angus King, an independent from Maine who caucuses with Democrats.
Republicans, though, complain that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats want billions of dollars in aid to states whose economies have been hit hard.
“If Speaker Pelosi would stop making her top priority the bailout of New York and California, we could pass a coronavirus bill this week,” shrugged Senator John Kennedy, a Republican from Louisiana.
Incumbents of both parties are likely to suffer if voters feel like the government has not done enough to stem the nation’s economic pain, especially as many fear a resurgence of the virus in the fall and winter.
“When people turn on their TVs they’re gonna see both sides focusing their energy on this confirmation process,” Williams said. “Anybody in Congress now who has to face voters will be blamed if they’re not getting adequate assistance.”
But some Democrats on Tuesday were already attempting to link the inaction directly to Republicans' court push.
“The time and energy that we devote to confirming a nominee before the election and failing to give the American people a voice also means that we’re less likely to do another relief bill,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut.
His Democratic colleague Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, however, wondered out loud if the court battle might motivate Republicans to come back to the table.
“Given how complicated their reelection fights just got because they’re potentially going to vote on a judge who takes away health care two weeks after the election, they might want to pass a COVID relief bill to counter that narrative,” he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the university affiliation of David Barker. He is director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University.