U.S. President Donald Trump implored Senate Republicans to “be tough” on Democrats heading into the fall election, touting his own poll numbers against rival Joe Biden during a free-wheeling private lunch on Capitol Hill.
With top White House advisers in tow, Trump attended what was perhaps one of the largest social gatherings still happening in locked-down Washington as officials consider next steps in the coronavirus response.
“We had a great meeting — all of the Republican senators were there,” Trump told reporters.
The private luncheon at the nearly closed U.S. Capitol complex was billed as an opportunity for Trump to thank senators for their work in fighting the virus outbreak and shoring up the economy, officials said.
But as senators from the 53-seat GOP majority convened behind closed doors, the discussion swiftly turned to politics and Trump’s “enthusiasm” for the campaign against Biden, the presumed Democratic nominee, senators said.
“He admonished all of us to be tough, fight back,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, told reporters afterward.
Democrats are eager to flip control of the Senate from Republicans as voters assess Trump’s handling of the pandemic crisis. Cornyn said the president explained to the senators, “It’s going to be a pitched battle.”
The president’s visits are often free-flowing conversations and Republicans said various topics were discussed.
But the hour-long session did not change the GOP position to hold off, until June, on a new round of virus aid for states and struggling Americans.
“We need to assess what we’ve already done, take a look at what worked and what didn’t,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., afterward. “We’ll discuss the way forward in the next couple of weeks.”
The U.S. Capitol building remains largely closed with the House away due to health risks, but the Senate is in session and the GOP majority still hashes out policy behind closed doors over lunch on Tuesdays.
With new social distancing restrictions, the Senate gathering was held in a bigger room across the street from the Capitol rather than the regular one steps from the Senate chamber. Many senators were masked and seating was limited to three to a table.
It was among the few known gatherings still happening in the nation’s capital, which remains under stay-home orders through June 8 as the virus outbreak tallies new cases and fatalities. One GOP senator and dozens of Capitol Hill workers and staff have tested positive for the virus. Senate Democrats skip in-person meetings and convene weekly by conference call.
Trump set off alarms when he disclosed this week that he is taking a drug, hydroxycholorquine, despite grave warnings from health officials and the U.S. government that the anti-malaria drug is unproven against COVID-19, and carries severe health risks, including death.
He did not discuss his decision to take the drug during the private lunch, senators said.
Tuesday brought a full day of administration appearances on Capitol Hill. Earlier, Vice-President Mike Pence and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin huddled with McConnell and House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy for a previously scheduled meeting.
They discussed the COVID-19 response and the economy, said a person unauthorized to describe the meeting and granted anonymity.
But it did not appear to change Republicans’ outlook that more funds are needed for the pandemic response.
“I don’t see the need right now,” McCarthy told reporters at the Capitol.
He said they discussed different items, “the economy, the number of states that are opening back up,” and the outlook for virus testing. “Getting a lot of updates.”
While House Democrats passed a new virus aid package last week, Senate Republicans say they’re not interested in providing more funds until they assess how the US$2 trillion in already approved money to fight the virus and improve the economy is being spent.
McConnell has said there’s no urgency to act on the latest US$3 trillion bill from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. He has declared the package a “seasonal catalogue” of liberal programs.
Pelosi’s package includes US$900 billion to states and cities to shore up their budgets during the crisis and prevent mass layoffs of state and local government workers. Regional tax revenues have plummeted during the shutdown. There’s also money for more virus testing, a fresh round of US$1,200 rebate checks for cash-strapped Americans and other aid.
Republicans prefer to wait to see if efforts to open up the economy can provide a kick-start and lessen the need for more aid.
“Very helpful,” said Mnuchin as he exited the meeting on his way to testify before the Senate Banking Committee. “Good update.”