I’m sitting on my flight home to Minnesota, like I do every week after the Senate adjourns. I’ve been a US senator for two and half years, all under the leadership of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. On these flights, I often reflect on the past week.
Rarely can I say we’ve voted on meaningful legislation to help the American people. More often I’d say we voted on a bunch of President Donald Trump’s judges (the Senate confirmed his 200th judge last month) and other nominees). I’ll be honest, it’s frustrating.
But last week, I departed Washington, DC, one especially angry senator, and here’s why.
In a few days, tens of millions of Americans are poised to lose their expanded unemployment insurance. It’s the only lifeline that’s kept lots of people afloat during the Covid-19 pandemic. In many states, limits on foreclosures and evictions, which have kept people from losing their homes, are expiring.
While Larry Kudlow, the director of the National Economic Council, says these protections will be expanded, there’s no clarity on what comes next. Local school districts have minimal guidance from the CDC or any idea of what help they can expect as they contemplate how to reopen schools safely. Small businesses are left struggling to make payroll. And the United States just passed 4 million Covid-19 cases — one quarter of which came just in the last 15 days — and registered more than 144,000 deaths.
Did we do anything to meaningfully solve these problems in the US Senate? No. The only thing we learned, hours after the Senate adjourned, is that McConnell will introduce a bill, crafted behind closed doors by Senate Republicans and the White House, without any input from Democrats, for what they think we should do next. Still, he has since said a final deal is likely “a few weeks” away.
Maybe Texas Sen. Ted Cruz put it best: “What in the hell are we doing?” He reportedly said this to White House negotiators and Senate Republicans at a meeting last week. It tidily sums up the chaos we’re witnessing. While Cruz and I certainly have different perspectives on what we need to do in this moment, his question is a good one.
Trump surely must be held accountable for this government’s disastrous response to the pandemic. He’s called the coronavirus a hoax, repeatedly undermined public health experts, disputed proven strategies to manage the disease, promoted ineffective ones, and consistently misled Americans. He has failed at containing the pandemic, and the American public knows it.
But McConnell needs to be held accountable, too.
Part of the Senate majority leader’s job is to set the Senate calendar. The House passed its latest Covid-19 relief bill a full 10 weeks ago. The Senate has been in Washington for seven weeks since then, in addition to three weeks that McConnell mystifyingly sent us home. In that time, we took 28 votes on Trump judges and nominees, and voted on 19 various bills — a few important, many not, and virtually none of them related to the pandemic.
So, what has Mitch McConnell been doing?
As Senate majority leader, did he think these 10 weeks could be used to develop a plan among members of his own party, not to mention us Democrats, who stand ready to work? Did he ever think maybe there was more pressing business than confirming positions like the CEO of the US Agency for Global Media, which oversees news organizations like Voice of America?
We can’t get those 10 weeks back. But there are a few things McConnell can do now to get the Senate back to working the way it should.
First, he needs to remember that nothing can pass the Senate without Democratic support. In fact, we saw this movie before when we passed the $2 trillion stimulus package a few months ago. McConnell spent far too long crafting a partisan bill without Democrats’ input; it didn’t pass because Senate rules require bipartisan support for passage of most legislation.
Only then did he bring Democrats to the table. We helped improve the bill, adding provisions like enhanced unemployment insurance and a moratorium on foreclosures and evictions. That passed with broad bipartisan support.
Crafting the current bill without Democrats is a waste of time. Instead of trying to placate the far fringes of his party or our erratic President, Sen. McConnell should bring Democrats to the table now and avoid prolonging this process into the middle of August.
Second, McConnell needs to understand that the path to safely reopening and economic recovery is doing what it takes to suppress the spread of the virus: enforce social distancing, require people to wear masks (which, after months of delay, the President finally endorsed last week), and follow CDC guidelines. And we need to act with urgency.
McConnell’s slow walk in the Senate, and the President’s strident messages about reopening without consideration of the consequences, is costing us more than time. We’ve seen the results. Florida, with a population of 21 million, had more cases of Covid-19 in a single day than South Korea, with a population of 51 million, has had during the entirety of the pandemic. And in Texas, health authorities in a rural county have said they will need to start rationing care because their ICU beds are full.
McConnell needs to be a forceful voice of reason: the only way we can avoid finding ourselves looking at another trillion-dollar piece of legislation in a few months is by getting a handle on the virus.
Americans are gripped by uncertainty and worry. The US Senate should be helping, putting our heads down and working together to get the job done. I hope McConnell is ready to start. The American people need certainty and relief.
I don’t want to fly home next Thursday unable to tell Minnesotans that we’ve been working to get them the help they need.