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Covid relief calls fire up pressure on Republicans

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Under pressure: Donald Trump speaks about plans on infrastructure during an event at the UPS Airport Facility in Atlanta, Georgia. PHOTO: REUTERS

Under pressure: Donald Trump speaks about plans on infrastructure during an event at the UPS Airport Facility in Atlanta, Georgia. PHOTO: REUTERS

REUTERS

Under pressure: Donald Trump speaks about plans on infrastructure during an event at the UPS Airport Facility in Atlanta, Georgia. PHOTO: REUTERS

The spiralling pandemic and the increasingly virulent ­politics around Washington's ­handling of the coronavirus are raising the pressure on Senate Republicans.

Leaders are now putting all their energies into crafting a fresh Covid-19 relief package in a bid to stop the slide in support.

As the Senate returns this week for a three-week sprint before the August break, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is facing competing demands from Donald Trump and Republican senators, including some who are up for re-election in states hit hard by the virus and are coming under withering attacks by Democratic challengers.

In particular, the expiration of an extra $600 (€525) per week in unemployment insurance by July 31 is adding pressure on vulnerable GOP senators as 20 to 30 million people remain out of work. Mr McConnell and many other Republicans ­adamantly oppose extending the enhanced benefit at its ­current level, saying it discourages some from returning to work because they make more money by staying home.

The Trump administration has further upended talks over the relief bill by trying to block billions of dollars for states to conduct testing and contact tracing, angering some Republican senators. Some White House officials argue that they have already approved billions in funding for testing and that some of that money remains unspent.

The election-year politics over the pandemic will be entwined with the contours of the next coronavirus package - a complicated dynamic Mr McConnell will have to ­manage along with disputes within his conference over aid to states and localities, as well as a persistent negative view by the public of the Trump administration's handling of the pandemic.

"We have to - together - get through this by making sure that people are able to get back to work, that businesses are able to survive, that individuals know that they're going to be OK," Senator Cory Gardner said in a phone interview.

He added that constituents are pressing him for more federal assistance and that he supports extending the enhanced unemployment benefit, though he is open to an amount less than the additional $600. He said he is also open to Democrats' demands for more aid for states and localities, though did not specify how much.

The first-term Republican senator, who is facing former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, on November 3, said he conveyed his request to Mr McConnell in a call on Thursday, pressing for the next relief package also to include more support for nationwide testing.

Another at-risk Republican senator, Susan Collins of Maine, told reporters last week that she is seeking more state and local aid - particularly for towns with smaller populations - and a fresh round of aid for small businesses and education to help schools reopen. She wants to continue expanded unemployment insurance, but only just enough that the money makes up for lost wages. Countering many in her party, she stressed that "now is not the time" to worry that another costly ­rescue package will add to the rising debt.

Nearly all Republican candidates' standing has fallen somewhat in the past month, according to strategists involved in Senate races, except perhaps for Mr Gardner and Ms Collins.

All those factors will be taken into consideration as Congress rushes into the next phase of coronavirus legislation this week. Mr McConnell is expected to unveil a pandemic relief proposal as early as today with a target value of $1tn, though some Republicans speculate that the figure could be larger. Extra attention is likely to be paid to the demands of vulnerable Republican senators, GOP officials said.

But there are several complicating factors. Mr Trump is insisting on a cut in payroll taxes, which fund Social Security, as part of the next package though few Republicans back this and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has repeatedly expressed opposition.

Irish Independent