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Trump’s confusing back-and-forth on fiscal stimulus, sort of explained

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President Donald Trump left the confines of Walter Reed Monday night. Soon after, perhaps predictably, he let loose on Twitter, where he threw economic stimulus talks into turmoil. First he canceled negotiations between Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and congressional Democrats, tweeting on Tuesday, “I have instructed my representatives to stop negotiating until after the election when, immediately after I win.”

Then, the next morning, he blamed Pelosi for not sending him a bill to sign.

The back and forth is confusing on a basic political level. It’s a bad idea to take the blame for killing a deal to help the American people in the final weeks of a campaign, a point that was made by Republicans, including Trump’s own campaign staff.

To clean up the mess, Trump pivoted to blaming Pelosi for the stalled efforts. According to Trump, she’s the one holding up a bill that he is “waiting to sign,” which would send $1,200 checks and perhaps more to the American people. But the reality is that there is no such bill, the only bill that’s actually passed anywhere is the HEROES Act.

Underneath the bad politics is a fundamental policy disagreement among Republicans. Republicans are divided on the merits of what to do about the economy — some, like Treasury Secretary Mnuchin, want a big stimulus deal, others are only willing to do a very modest targeted rescue of a few businesses, while still others, like Sen. Rand Paul, want nothing on principle. At a moment when Republican leaders want unity ahead of an election, there will be dissension in the ranks.

The outcome will come down to what happens in the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been reluctant for months to push any legislation at all. Blaming Pelosi for the standoff is politically convenient, but the proximate stumbling block this whole time has been internal disagreement among senate republicans.

Stimulus talks have been stalled for months

Back in mid-May, House Democrats wrote and passed the HEROES Act, a $3 trillion fiscal stimulus package with money for households, money for schools, money for state & local governments, and money for urgent public health needs. It was largely an extension of the basically successful framework of the CARES Act, with an expansion of scope to include the state and local aid.

This was a big bill but, critically, it did not include automatic stabilizers that would have ensured the economy got extra help in 2021 if needed (in effect a concession to Republicans built in from the start).

Nobody expected the GOP-run Senate to agree to that bill, but many observers were surprised that Republicans responded with nothing at all. Through June, July and August, Senate Republicans wrote no legislation and no meaningful negotiations took place between House Democrats and representatives of the Trump administration. Then with he economy stumbling in late summer Senate Republicans hastily threw together a $650 billion bill on September 10. That bill got 52 Republican votes with Paul defecting on the grounds that it was too much spending.

The key takeaways from this are that even a very small stimulus was somewhat controversial among McConnell’s right flank, which explains why he spent months ignoring the issue. It also revealed that some Republicans might be willing to join Democrats in passing a larger package.

Action then shifted to direct talks between Pelosi and Mnuchin. In the course of those talks, Pelosi lowered her target substantially to $2.2 trillion while Mnuchin promised more than McConnell’s offer — up to $1.6 trillion. The difference was both about the size of the package and in particular the inclusion of aid to state and local governments. Republican economists who favor fiscal stimulus tell me that while the idea of the government spending money on anything is controversial on Capitol Hill, the state/local aid concept in particular is toxic because congressional Republicans have a strong view on the merits that forcing big cuts in spending is a good idea.

But Mnuchin himself was, to an extent, freelancing with this effort. McConnell started warning Trump that his Treasury secretary might be on the verge of striking a deal that would prompt a Republican caucus fight.

But Trump went well beyond declining to agree to a bill to proudly announcing Tuesday afternoon that he was killing negotiations, tweeting that Pelosi “is not negotiating in good faith” and “I have instructed my representatives to stop negotiating until after the election when, immediately after I win, we will pass a major Stimulus Bill that focuses on hardworking Americans and Small Business.”

This essentially took Trump out of one political jam and landed him into a different one, since the last thing vulnerable Republicans trying to win reelection — including members of his own campaign staff — want is the message that the president has given up on trying to help people in need.

Trump needs to abandon the majority of the majority principle

McConnell’s assertion, reported in the Washington Post, that a stimulus deal couldn’t pass the Senate is almost certainly an overstatement — but it would need to be a bill that got plenty of Democratic votes. If the president and McConnell enthusiastically backed a bill, then dredging up 15-20 Republican senators to vote for it would almost certainly be possible.

The trouble, from McConnell’s point of view, is that this would involve a big ugly fight, and legislative caucus leaders like to avoid big ugly fights. Back during George W. Bush’s presidency, Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert articulated a principle he dubbed “the majority of the majority” rule. This meant that not only did legislation need to be backed by a majority of House members to pass, but it needed to be backed by a majority of House Republicans to be brought to the floor for a vote. This is not an actual rule of congressional procedure, and it has been selectively violated over the rules from time to time.

The best way out of this jam for the country would be for Trump to decide he doesn’t really care about McConnell’s personal comfort level with a caucus fight.

Virtually all progressives and some conservatives believe that spending money helps bolster a depressed economy, but some conservatives — including many senators and many members of Trump’s own staff — do not. To effectively do a deal, Trump would need to decisively break with those people and sign an agreement whose premise is that it does help. And to effectively pressure Pelosi, Trump would also need to decisively break with those people and enthusiastically barnstorm in favor of an alternative stimulus proposal.

Mixed messages helps duck a fight, but doesn’t actually get anything done.


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Trump’s closing message is lying about the coronavirus at rallies that spread infection

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With the pandemic getting worse, not better, President Donald Trump tried to turn reality on its head during a series of rallies on Saturday in North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

“We’re rounding the turn. Our numbers are incredible,” Trump claimed in Lumberton, North Carolina, before blasting the media for its alleged fear-mongering.

But the US is not rounding a turn for the better. Friday and Saturday saw new daily coronavirus infections in the US surge past 80,000 for the first time ever. And it’s not just cases — hospitalizations are up more than 33 percent over the last month, and the seven-day average of deaths is now back above 800.

“That’s all I hear about now. Turn on television, ‘Covid, Covid, Covid Covid Covid.’ A plane goes down, 500 people dead, they don’t talk about it. ‘Covid Covid Covid Covid.’ By the way, on November 4, you won’t hear about it anymore,” Trump said. (In case it’s not clear, the plane crash he referred to was made up.)

Trump invoked a nearly identical talking point a couple hours later in Circleville, Ohio, saying, “You know what? On November 4, you’re not gonna hear— the news, CNN, all they talk about, ‘Covid Covid Covid.’ If a plane goes down with 500 people, they don’t talk about … they’re trying to scare everybody.”

Then, on Saturday night in Waukesha, Wisconsin, Trump argued, falsely, that the main reason cases in the US are going up is because the US does so much testing — “if we did half the testing, we’d have half the cases,” he said, as if testing causes cases — and insisted the coronavirus is “going away.” (In recent weeks, new cases have actually grown at a much faster rate than testing has expanded.)

Trump echoed the same theme during his first rally of the day on Sunday in Londonderry, New Hampshire.

Not only is Trump’s rhetoric irresponsible, but the fact is, he’s holding rallies that make a mockery of social distancing and mask-wearing guidelines recommended by his own government. And these rallies appear to be actively making the pandemic worse by spreading the virus.

Perhaps the strongest evidence of this came on Friday, when Erin Mansfield, Josh Salman, and Dinah Voyles Pulver authored a piece for USA Today that examined how coronavirus cases surged in a number of places where Trump recently held rallies.

From the article:

The president has participated in nearly three dozen rallies since mid-August, all but two at airport hangars. A USA TODAY analysis shows COVID-19 cases grew at a faster rate than before after at least five of those rallies in the following counties: Blue Earth, Minnesota; Lackawanna, Pennsylvania; Marathon, Wisconsin; Dauphin, Pennsylvania; and Beltrami, Minnesota.

Together, those counties saw 1,500 more new cases in the two weeks following Trump’s rallies than the two weeks before – 9,647 cases, up from 8,069.

But to the extent that Trump actually engages with this reality, his message is that people have to learn to live with it.

“You have to lead your life, and you have to get out,” he advised his fans on Saturday in Ohio.

The White House has no plan — and they aren’t even trying to hide it

Beyond the mounting human toll — more than 220,000 Americans have now died from the coronavirus — the latest spike in cases comes at a politically inopportune time for the White House, with Election Day now just nine days away.

But at this point, the Trump administration isn’t even pretending to have a plan to slow the spread of the virus. Instead, during a CNN interview on Sunday, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said, revealingly, that “we’re not going to control the pandemic.”

Meanwhile, the White House is dealing with yet another cluster of cases — five people close to Vice President Mike Pence have tested positive for the virus in recent days. Pence, the chair of the White House coronavirus task force, was exposed. But instead of following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, which calls for exposed people to self-quarantine for 14 days, he plans to travel to pandemic rallies on Sunday and Monday.

So not only has the White House given up on protecting the American public, but Trump administration officials have failed to protect themselves. And Trump and Pence are actively making things worse by lying to the American public about the state of the pandemic at rallies that fuel further spread.


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US Senate debates Supreme Court nominee Barrett: What to expect

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In an exercise of raw political power, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has put the Republican-controlled United States Senate on a path to confirm Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court just 11 days before United States national elections.

“In about 72 hours I predict we will have a new confirmed associate justice to the US Supreme Court,” McConnell said Friday on the Senate floor.

Barrett’s lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court requires a minimum of 51 votes and Republicans who control the Senate 53-47 say they have the numbers despite two likely Republican defections.

A procedural vote is expected during a rare Sunday session this weekend, setting up a final vote on Barrett on Monday.

The Senate action means Barrett would replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court, creating a 6-3 majority of conservative justices.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has enough votes from Republicans to steamroll Democratic opposition to Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation to the Supreme Court [Ken Cedeno/Reuters]

Democrats focus on health care, rights

Democrats are expected to use the debate over the weekend to make a political case against President Donald Trump and Republican allies in the midst of national elections.

“A vote by any senator – any senator – for Judge Barrett is a vote to strike down the Affordable Care Act,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, said in a teleconference with news media.

The high court will hear arguments on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, known as “Obamacare”, on November 10, just one week after the election.

In addition to healthcare, Democrats will characterise Republican support for Barrett as voting against reproductive freedoms for women and equal rights for people of colour, disadvantaged groups and the LGBTQ community.

“Every single one of our rights will be at stake,” Schumer said.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer tried to delay Senate confirmation of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the US Supreme Court, but lacks enough Democratic votes to block her appointment [Ken Cedeno/Reuters]

Republicans cite Barrett’s qualifications

Barrett, 48, is a conservative jurist who follows the “originalist” school of jurisprudence that interprets the US Constitution on the basis of the nation’s founders’ original intent.

She is a well-regarded professor of constitutional law at Indiana’s University of Notre Dame, where she graduated first in her law school class in 1997.

In 2017, Barrett was appointed by Trump to the US 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, Illinois.

The American Bar Association has rated her “well qualified” for the role of Supreme Court justice and she has support from many of her colleagues in academia and law.

During her confirmation hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee, Barrett studiously avoided expressing any opinions on Supreme Court precedents or issues pending before the court.

Cries of hypocrisy

Democrats will characteriSe the entire process as destructive of norms in the Senate that have been eroded under McConnell’s leadership.

Senate Republicans had blocked former President Barack Obama’s nomination of a Supreme Court justice 10 months in advance of the 2016 election that Trump won, allowing him to nominate Justice Neil Gorsuch.

At the time, Republicans justified their position as a matter of democratic principles; close to an election, the people should decide who nominates new justices to the top US court.

Now, Republicans have abandoned those claims and instead are arguing that the 2016 election giving them control of the presidency and the Senate gives them a mandate to fill Ginsburg’s vacant seat.

Senator Mazie Hirono, wearing a protective mask printed with images of the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is among Democrats who will vote to oppose Judge Barrett’s confirmation [Hannah McKay/Reuters]

“Elections have consequences and the American people elected a Republican president and Senate in 2016,” McConnell said.

With polls suggesting Democrats are in a position to win the White House and Congress, there is talk of passing legislation next year to expand the number of justices on the court.

“Everything is on the table,” Schumer said this week.

That has made the question of “court packing” an issue in the presidential campaign. Democratic candidate Joe Biden has said he would make his views clear after the Senate acts on Barrett, though in a television interview this week, Biden said that if elected, he would form a bipartisan commission to look at judicial reforms.

Two Republicans break ranks

Republican senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski have expressed doubts about rushing Barrett’s confirmation and appear ready to vote against her.

“I’ve shared for a while that I didn’t think we should be taking this up until after the election, and I haven’t changed,” Murkowski told reporters at the US Capitol this week.

Asked whether she would be a “no” vote, Murkowski responded, “That means I haven’t changed my mind on that.”

Civil rights groups have come out in opposition to Barrett’s nomination and the rushed Senate process.

Endangered Republican Senator Susan Collins is one of two likely Republican ‘no’ votes on Barrett [Hannah McKay/Reuters]

Collins, who is in a fight for re-election in Maine, reiterated her opposition to the process in an October 10 political debate with Democratic challenger Sara Gideon.

“It’s a matter of principle. It’s a matter of fairness,” Collins said.

“In a democracy, we should play by the same rules and the fact is that there has not been a confirmation of a Supreme Court justice in a presidential year since 1932,” Collins said.

Collins faces a potential defeat in Maine after being targeted by women’s rights groups for her controversial decision to support Trump nominee Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who is seen as hostile to abortion rights sanctioned by the 1973 Roe v Wade Supreme Court decision.

Rights groups oppose Barrett

Nongovernmental rights groups in the US have aligned against Barrett and are urging senators to vote against her nomination.

“This is reckless, and it is devastating. It is devastating for our communities and our democracy that Senate Republicans are rushing this process,” said Vanita Gupta, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

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Nigeria seeks to halt looting amid fury over ‘food warehouses’

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Abuja, Nigeria – Nigerian security forces are struggling to contain increasing cases of looting on government-run warehouses across the country, in the latest incident of unrest following widespread, youth-led protests against police brutality.

The storage facilities hold tonnes of relief materials including food meant for distribution during lockdowns previously enforced to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus.

While the distribution programme had been temporarily halted across several states in the country in recent months, it emerged this week relief items were still stored in some of these facilities, as well as the private homes of politicians.

The news angered many in the country with the biggest number of people living in extreme poverty globally.

“The food items belong to Nigerians. Why are they hiding them? This is wickedness. How do you hide food from hungry people?” asked Ibironke Babalola, a resident of Nigeria’s commercial capital, Lagos.

“There are many families who are struggling to even get just one meal a day, yet we have food in warehouses that were kept by some politicians,” the 41-year-old told Al Jazeera.

Tens of thousands of peaceful protesters have taken to the streets across Nigeria this month to demand an end to police violence and other sweeping reforms.

Amid rising tensions, criminals this week vandalised public buildings and damaged property while others took advantage of the unrest to attack the warehouses holding food items and other supplies.

On Saturday, police officers in the capital, Abuja, shot sporadically into the air and used tear gas to disperse residents who had approached a warehouse.

It was a different scenario in the southern city of Calabar where security forces were unable to stop the ransacking of homes of local politicians, where some of the COVID-19 relief materials were being kept.

In Ilorin, in central Kwara state, security officers faced difficulties in containing attacks on a government facility in recent days. The state governor has declared a 24-hour curfew to prevent further escalation of violence.

Authorities in Adamawa state, in the country’s northeast, also imposed a round-the-clock curfew on Sunday after looters attacked a large food warehouse.

Home to more than 200 million people, Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country and the continent’s top oil exporter.

But according to the National Bureau of Statistics, almost 83 million people, or 40 percent of the population, live below its poverty line of 137,430 naira ($381.75) a year, with millions depending on daily income for survival.

Some states which have previously suspended handing out coronavirus relief materials had pledged to resume distribution of the food items to poor residents – but some were unconvinced.

“Big fat lie,” said Effiong Zachariah, an Abuja resident.

“Some of the food items people found in the warehouses had gone bad,” the 35-year-old told Al Jazeera. “It shows you how wicked our people are. What would it cost them to share these rice and other items amongst the poor? People are hungry and they need to eat,” he added.

“The government should ensure that the warehouses still having food in them should be opened and the food distributed to avoid further clashes between security forces and poor Nigerians looking for food.”

Government officials have issued statements urging looters to stay away from warehouses and called on the police to arrest and prosecute those breaking the law.

On Saturday, Muhammed Adamu, inspector general of police, said he had ordered the “immediate mobilisation” of all police resources “to bring an end to the wanton violence, killings, looting and destruction of public and private property, and reclaim the public space from criminal elements masquerading as protesters in some parts of the country”.

Meanwhile, some government agencies warned looters against the consumption of some of the stolen items.

“Some people even made away with pre-fermented corns preserved for planting. All these items are poisonous and not fit for consumption,” Akin Omole, Ekiti state’s commissioner for information and civic orientation, said in a statement.

“We, therefore, appeal to our people not to consume these items because they can kill,” Omole said.

The Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), a civil rights organisation, expressed disappointment at the non-distribution of food items to poor Nigerians and called for an urgent inquiry.

“Unless promptly investigated, the allegations of hoarding and diversion would undermine public trust in any efforts to bring the spread of the pandemic under control, exacerbate the negative impact of the crisis, and deny those most in need access to basic necessities of life,” SERAP stated.

According to SERAP, “the alleged hoarding of COVID-19 palliatives in several states and the apparent failure to timely, effectively, efficiently and transparently distribute the palliatives to the poorest and most vulnerable people have continued to deny many citizens the much-needed support.”

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