Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., walked back his threat to let states that request federal assistance go bankrupt rather than extend additional aid, which would require further deficit spending.
"I'm open to additional assistance," he told Politico. "It's not just going to be a check, though. You get my point?"
McConnell also suggested to Fox News Radio host Guy Benson that President Donald Trump should cut back on the time he spends speaking at White House coronavirus briefings, saying most Americans would rather hear information about the pandemic from medical professionals.
"Well, certainly what the American people are most interested in is the advice from health professionals about how to conduct their daily lives safely," he said.
McConnell told Politico that his remarks about the bankruptcy plan — which drew a bipartisan rebuke after he made them on a conservative talk radio show last week — were "a classic case of taking things out of context."
"The fundamental point I was trying to make is that we're not interested in borrowing money from future generations to help states solve problems that they created themselves," McConnell said. "The bankruptcy suggestion would have been optional, anyway. I wasn't assuming many of them were going to take that option."
In the interview with Hugh Hewitt last week, McConnell said that he "would certainly be in favor of allowing states to use the bankruptcy route."
"It saves some cities," he told the radio host. "And there's no good reason for it not to be available. My guess is their first choice would be for the federal government to borrow money from future generations to send it down to them now so they don't have to do that. That's not something I'm going to be in favor of."
Rep. Pete King, R-N.Y., rebuked McConnell hours later, calling his fellow Republican's remarks "indefensible" and dubbing the majority leader "the Marie Antoinette of the Senate."
"To say that it is 'free money' to provide funds for cops, firefighters and healthcare workers makes McConnell the Marie Antoinette of the Senate," King tweeted, in reference to the senator's remark that "we all have governors regardless of party who would love to have free money."
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, the Republican chair of the National Governors Association (NGA), which requested a $500 billion aid package that was blocked by the GOP-led Senate, told ABC News that McConnell "probably would regret" that comment.
"I think it just slipped out, but I'm hopeful that we will be able to convince Senator McConnell to go along with the bipartisan bill in the Senate and the administration's commitment to help the states in that final stimulus package," he said.
Though he stopped short of a full retraction, McConnell staked out a new position that leaves open the possibility of another round of financial relief for state and local governments, who have received $150 billion in federal aid. Municipal officials and governors say that amount is dangerously insufficient and could force states to make "drastic" cuts, as the NGA warned Congress, leaving the national recovery "dramatically hampered."
"We're not writing a check to send down to states to allow them to, in effect, finance mistakes they've made unrelated to the coronavirus," McConnell said.
The president echoed the majority leader's talking point in a tweet the same day.
"Why should the people and taxpayers of America be bailing out poorly run states (like Illinois, as example) and cities, in all cases Democrat run and managed, when most other states are not looking for bailout help?" Trump tweeted.
But Republican states are overall more dependent on federal assistance, with McConnell's home of Kentucky ranking second overall. Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut on Monday tweeted, "If Florida would like to have a conversation about making sure no state gets more money from the federal government than they send to it, Connecticut is ready," responding to Florida Republican Senator Rick Scott's assertion that federal aid for blue states was "not fair to the taxpayers of Florida."
In the Monday interview with Fox News Radio, McConnell appeared to relent.
"There probably will be another state and local funding bill, but we need to make sure that we achieve something that will go beyond simply sending out money," the senator from Kentucky said.
McConnell later suggested that the American people want to hear less from Trump and more from the experts about "how to conduct their lives safely."
"And to the extent that the White House decides to re-craft those briefings to reflect that goal — probably a good idea," he added.