FOMO: How the fear of being left on the sidelines brought McConnell and Mnuchin back to the negotiating table on COVID relief

News came late last night that on behalf of the Trump administration as well as the Republican leadership in both the House and the Senate, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has made a serious COVID relief compromise offer to Speaker Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer. The proposal pegs the price tag at $916 billion, slightly higher than the $908 billion proposed by the bipartisan, bichameral members of Congress who have wrested control of the negotiation of a compromise package in Congress. And the White House proposal includes something that Democrats have held in high regard: a second one-time direct payment to the vast majority of American households.

To be certain, the proposal Mnuchin presented is unlikely to pass without significant changes. For one thing, Mnuchin's proposal trades away the $300 weekly enhancement to unemployment benefits in the bipartisan compromise framework in order to make room for a $600 one-time direct payment. Losing the enhanced unemployment insurance is a non-starter for Democrats, Pelosi and Schumer made clear in a statement calling for the bipartisan group to remain in charge of shaping the ultimate package.

But since the election, this is the first indication of real movement toward a urgently needed COVID relief bill before the end of the year from the Republican leadership on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

For a while, it appeared that Congress was hopelessly gridlocked, and was going to go home for Christmas without passing a COVID relief package for millions of people and businesses whose unemployment benefits, eviction protection, and small business assistance is due to run out at the end of the year.

The impasse was primarily - if not entirely - the fault of Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who refused to bring anything other than a skimpy bill that had no help for states or for unemployment, to the floor of the Senate. While the tactic appeared to be pre-election posturing, McConnell made no serious attempts at outreach and compromise after the election, either. And with Trump defeated and disinterested in anything except fantastical accounts of his dithering legal challenges to overturn the election he lost, the White House, and Mnuchin, its emissary to Congress, appeared disengaged as well.

That is, until the bipartisan group of senators and House members in the Problem Solvers Caucus and led by Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin, Mark Warner, and Maggie Hassan and Republican Sens. Susan Collins, and Lisa Murkowski, among others, decided to grab the political center and propose a framework for compromise of their own. Pelosi and Schumer were quick to lend their support, at least to the broad framework if not to every detail that is still in development. The GOP leadership is now hurrying to get on board before the train leaves the station.

The fact that there was a good number of Republicans in the group, in and of itself, diminished the power that Mitch McConnell had wielded thus far in holding COVID relief hostage. While he retains control over the Senate calendar and floor, he no longer has the backing of a united Republican caucus for his obstructionism, at least not on COVID legislation. It isolated him and made him a focal point of the blame for blocking relief in a way that was not possible when a case could be made that the logjam was purely partisan, and that McConnell's blockade was merely representing the will of his caucus.

It also made real another fear for McConnell as well as Mnuchin: fear of missing out. With moderates taking the center stage and the Democratic leadership backing the moderates, there was a real possibility that the package would take shape without the involvement of the White House or Congressional GOP leadership, and both would be backed into a corner and forced to agree to such a package.

I doubt that would have made any significant substantive difference in the ultimate shape of the legislation, but the appearance of a disengaged leadership could become a bigger challenge to McConnel's sway over his caucus in the future whether or not he retains the Majority Leader position after the Georgia runoffs in January. For Trump, sidelining is a prima-facie fear, not a strategic one. He could not stand to see others get the credit while he watched. He needed to at least give an impression he's still in charge.

It seems to have worked. McConnell himself said on Tuesday that the Senate would not go home without completing negotiations and passing a final coronavirus relief bill, and Mnuchin, on behalf of Trump, McConnell, and House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, have at least brought a serious offer to the table.

At this point, chances are much better than it has been in months that a COVID relief package will ultimately pass before year's end. The Mnuchin offer makes it more likely that the final package is likely to include both a direct payment (probably around $600) and the $300-a-week unemployment enhancement.

According to Pelosi and Schumer's statement, the Mnuchin proposal, by eliminating the enhanced unemployment benefit, reduces spending on unemployment insurance to $40 billion from the $180 billion proposed by the bipartisan compromise framework. In other words, for $140 billion more, the unemployment benefit could be added to the Mnuchin offer, bringing the cost of the final package to about $1.06 trillion. It's hard to see - and would be stupid on steroids, to quote Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) - to allow the package to sink over that additional $140 billion. And color me an optimist, but I do not believe McConnell and Mnuchin came off the sidelines to retreat back into it for a relatively insignificant sum.

Fusing the two proposals would also address the demands of a group of "progressive" senators led by Bernie Sanders who announced their opposition to the bipartisan effort on account of the absence of a direct payment of $1,200. Six hundred dollars would meet them half way, and it would be a test of whether they are willing to meet the centrists half way for the sake of getting this done.

Perhaps rank-and-file centrists and moderates ought to try to invoke their leadership colleagues' fear of missing out more often in the next Congress.

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