(CNN)Senate GOP leaders are working to limit defections from their party’s latest economic stimulus package, which they were hoping to vote on as soon as next week to provide a clear election-year contrast with Democrats.
But behind the scenes, they are running into a new hurdle: Sen. Ted Cruz and his push for a controversial school choice plan that has divided the Senate Republican Conference. GOP leaders have been working for weeks with their 53-member Senate conference in an effort to ensure that 51 senators will vote to advance their plan. Republicans now privately acknowledge that they will likely need next week to iron out their differences — with their first full conference meeting on Wednesday — potentially putting off the showdown vote over their economic stimulus plan until the third week of September.
On private conference calls, Cruz, a Texas Republican who ran for president in 2016 and might again in 2024, has been lobbying Republicans to include billions in tax credits to expand school choice, an idea with strong support among GOP voters but one that critics say would hurt public school systems.Sources on the calls told CNN that Cruz has argued the coronavirus pandemic has showcased the weakness of public school systems and that Republicans should get behind an idea that the party is advocating this election year, including at last month’s Republican National Convention. Cruz has argued that there’s little in the bill as it’s being developed that he could get behind, suggesting he could vote against the plan if school choice is not included, according to sources on the call. Read MoreBut if Cruz got his way, it would put some Republicans up for reelection in a difficult spot — such as Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who has long resisted such policies — and could open them up to a fresh round of attacks on the campaign trail. Some other Republicans have also voiced concerns, worried it wouldn’t be workable in their states.Yet if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell doesn’t give Cruz what he wants, he could be at risk of falling short of the 51 votes the Kentucky Republican has been pushing for through the August recess. That’s because he could lose the support of other conservatives, like Sen. Mike Lee of Utah — and he’s already very likely to see his Kentucky colleague, Rand Paul, vote against the stimulus plan as well.Senate Republicans have struggled for weeks to get behind their own stimulus plan, despite roundly criticizing the $3 trillion-plus Democratic bill that Speaker Nancy Pelosi pushed through the House in May. Immediately after McConnell unveiled a roughly $1 trillion GOP plan in July, he faced a revolt by a number of Republicans over the size, scope and contents of the proposal — after Congress had already passed nearly $3 trillion in stimulus spending earlier this year. He never brought up that measure for a vote. So during the August recess, McConnell and his colleagues have put together a scaled-back plan — roughly half the size of the $1 trillion proposal — to coalesce around the ideas that have the most support in order to make it harder for Democrats to make the case against a targeted approach with millions suffering from the economic crisis.While a new Senate GOP proposal will almost certainly be blocked by Senate Democrats, the ability to unify behind a proposal may give Republicans negotiating leverage while insulating endangered Republicans up for reelection from charges of inaction in the face of economic hardship. “Here we are in September, and we’ve been in discussion now for the last month or so, with no results so far,” McConnell said at a news conference Friday in Bowling Green, Kentucky. “So I can’t promise one final package, but I’m darn proud of what we did do. I think it clearly made a difference; clearly helped us survive this economic disaster that we created in order to try to deal with the public health crisis.”While GOP leaders have made significant progress in the effort to unify their conference, aides said, there’s been one significant holdup. The $5 billion school choice tax credit, which has the support of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and in the past has been touted by the White House, has long been a priority for Cruz and is designed to help finance private school education. School choice has been a top conservative cause for years but has gained fresh urgency during the pandemic. Supporters argue — as many speakers did at last month’s Republican convention — that it’s critical to give parents the resources they need to move their children out of troubled public schools and into private, parochial and charter schools, as well as schooling from home. Many public school systems were criticized for their responses to the coronavirus outbreak last spring and their efforts at virtual learning, and many parents fear things could get worse this fall as the pandemic continues. Opponents of school choice say it diverts badly needed dollars from cash-strapped public schools.Cruz’s proposal would essentially provide reimbursement — in full — for donations to state-based nonprofit scholarship funds that help families with tuition and other education expenses for private K-12 schooling.While the proposal has supporters in the GOP conference, it also has detractors, both on policy grounds and on the idea of including it what is designed to be a scaled-back relief package. Several Republican members, sources say, have made clear that they would like their own preferred provisions, including other forms of tax credits, included should Cruz’s be added to the package.
“Sen. Cruz has been a leading advocate for school choice in the Senate,” said Lauren Blair Aronson, a Cruz spokeswoman. “Throughout the pandemic, he has urged his colleagues to focus on solutions that will help get Americans safely back to work and our kids safely back into the classroom, including provisions of his Education Freedom Scholarship and Opportunity Act, which would give families the resources they need to ensure their children have access to a quality education in these uncertain times.”How — and if — GOP leaders resolve the issue will determine whether they move forward on a bill next week.