After more than three years of almost unflinching lockstep between Republicans in the Senate and the Trump administration, major differences are now beginning to divide the GOP. The breaking point has been forming for several months now and centers on how the party, and the federal government, should respond to the pandemic and financial recession caused by the coronavirus.
White House Push to Re-Open SchoolsRead More »
Many school districts around the country indicated that they would make the decision on a local level, and that unless conditions with the pandemic changed significantly, they would opt for online learning in the fall in order to keep children, staff, and families safe. A number pointed out that the administration’s order contradicted the safety guidelines released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in June. School districts in Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, New York, Atlanta, Houston, and elsewhere indicated that they would not return to fully in-person learning in the fall, effectively ignoring the president’s directive.
Withholding Federal Money for Education
Outraged at this loss of support and continuing to ignore both science and public opinion, Trump at first attempted to compel the CDC to change its guidelines. When that failed, he decided to try to punish any districts that would not re-open in person as he wanted. On July 10, Trump casually floated this threat in a tweet, stating that “Schools must be open in the Fall. If not open, why would the Federal Government give Funding? It won’t!!!” Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos indicated in an interview on the show “State of the Union” on July 12 that the Trump administration would withhold federal money from any school districts not complying with its re-opening desires. “If schools aren’t going to reopen,” she said, “they shouldn’t get the funds.”
While the total amount of current federal funding is small—less than ten percent of total spending on public k–12 education—that money is mostly geared toward helping the most needy and at-risk students through programs such as special education and free or reduced-cost school meals. Instead of cutting that money, the White House has instructed Republican senators and representatives to design any plan for federal bailout money to punish districts that do not open for in-person learning. Senator Roy Blunt, chair of the Appropriations Committee’s health subcommittee, announced that of the $70 billion for k–12 education in the $105 billion education bailout package now under consideration, half would be distributed to school districts on a per capita basis and half would be provided to districts to help with costs associated with reopening. It is that second portion, $35 billion, that the administration is targeting to withhold from school districts that open using online or hybrid learning models.
Senate Republicans Turning on the Trump Administration
This new turn in the Trump administration strategy to force districts to re-open with only in person learning has outraged local authorities, school officials, public health officials, and Democrats. Perhaps even more notable, however, is the growing opposition to the directive from within the GOP itself, including among many Republican Senators who had formerly been unquestioningly loyal to whatever came out of the White House.
One of the first signs of the Senate GOP break with the White House came on Wednesday, July 22, when Indiana Republican senator Mike Braun told the media that he was “not a big fan of doing anything where the federal government impacts local, state governments or schools.” Voicing a familiar Republican Party refrain, Braun indicated that he didn’t want “the federal government getting involved.” Similarly, Republican senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, who is on the Appropriations Committee, opposed the idea there is or should be a “one-size-fits-all” approach to reopening classrooms across the country. Perhaps most bluntly, when asked if he supported using federal funds to compel schools to reopen in person, Florida Republican senator Marco Rubio responded: “No.”
A Growing Trend of GOP Opposition to Trump
The disagreement with the Trump school reopening plan that some Republican Senators are now voicing is part of a larger chorus of opposition growing in the ranks of the GOP to the administration response to the pandemic and recession. Most recently, Republicans in the Senate have pushed for more money for coronavirus testing and contact-tracing, but the White House has opposed that plan. Likewise, when the President issued a demand that any future economic stimulus legislation includes payroll tax cuts, leaders of his party in the Senate indicated that they would not consider such a bill.
It is not entirely clear why Senator Republicans are beginning to feel secure enough to stand up to the president now, after years of acquiescing to an increasingly belligerent and autocratic administration. Perhaps the most obvious explanation, however, is electoral: as Trump’s approval ratings continue to crater—including among conservative-leaning independents and even Republicans—more and more Republican lawmakers are becoming wary of tying their political fortunes to a president who seems increasingly unlikely to secure re-election in November
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