MIKE LILLIS AND SCOTT WONG
House Democrats, increasingly anxious about leaving Washington without acting on coronavirus relief, are amping up the pressure on Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to bring emergency aid to the floor before Congress heads home next week.
Pelosi has held firm that she will not lower her demand for a $2.2 trillion package, but a growing number of uneasy centrists are clamoring to vote on some new stimulus legislation — even without a deal — before Oct. 2, when the House is scheduled to recess for the final leg of campaigning ahead of the Nov. 3 elections.
“There’s an awful lot of concern amongst members that things be done,” said Rep. John Larson (Conn.), the former head of the Democratic Caucus.
The pressure is emerging in different forms.
Moderate Democrats have taken the remarkable step of threatening to endorse a Republican effort to force a floor vote on a single provision of the relief blueprint — help for small businesses — even against the wishes of their own leadership.
The Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group of centrist lawmakers, continued this week to press leaders in both parties to act immediately on a package topping $1.5 trillion.
And Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) aired a rare public split with Pelosi on Wednesday, saying in no uncertain terms that Democrats should vote on a partisan relief package before the chamber leaves Washington next week even if there’s no deal with the White House — a strategy the Speaker has long resisted.
“I think we ought to be taking up COVID-19 legislation before we leave here, and I don’t think we ought to wait,” Hoyer said. “People are really hurting.”
Complicating the debate for the Democrats, rank-and-file lawmakers have been all over the board when it comes to specific strategies for pressuring Republicans to return to the negotiating table — and providing themselves political cover as they return home to voters crushed by the health and economic devastation caused by the deadly pandemic.
Some lawmakers want a vote on a massive package topping $3 trillion, akin to the HEROES Act, which the House passed in May. Others are hoping for consideration of trimmed down legislation — something in the range of Pelosi’s last offer of $2.2 trillion. Still others are backing Pelosi’s decision to hold the line and wait for a bipartisan agreement that can win President Trump’s signature.
“It’s kind of all over the map,” said Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.), a leading figure in the New Democrat Coalition.
Still, Aguilar is among the lawmakers itching for a House vote in the next eight days, even if it has no Republican buy-in. That, he said, would send the message to voters that Democrats are still fighting for emergency aid months after passage of the HEROES Act, even if Republicans have ignored the legislation.
“It should send a signal to the public as to where we are, and it’s more recent than [the HEROES Act]. It represents where you think things should be,” he said. “We hope that something happens.”
Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) said the angst is only growing with each day that passes without a deal.
“Yes, yes, yes,” she said when asked if the House should vote on some form of stimulus. “Members feel very strongly.”
Rep. Donna Shalala (D-Fla.), a former Health and Human Services secretary under President Clinton, is siding with Pelosi. She said the only option for her is a substantive bipartisan deal, describing how the virus has wreaked havoc on everyday residents and the hotel and cruise industries in her Miami district.
“I’m just holding out for a deal. My district looks grimmer and grimmer, so I’m just praying for a deal and I’m just not willing to hypothesize what it’s like to go home without a deal,” Shalala told The Hill.
“I just want to go home with something. I’ve got to go home and help people. … my district is just devastated and in Little Havana, the unemployment is very serious and the sickness is serious.”
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), whose Bronx district has been one of the hardest hit during the pandemic, echoed that message, blaming Republicans for the long impasse.
“I just don’t think that Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump have any respect for the human toll of COVID. We just passed 200,000 deaths and it felt like it didn’t even register with them,” she said. “Their basic disrespect over human life is going to make it difficult to come to the table. They feel no sense of urgency over the loss of life and that alone makes this extraordinarily difficult.”
But she predicted the GOP is unlikely to waver unless public opinion polls show their party is likely to lose the Senate majority over the issue.
“It will have to continue to slide to the point where they feel they are in serious danger of losing the Senate,” Ocasio-Cortez told The Hill.
In July and August, Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) conducted in-person talks with the administration’s top negotiators, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, but those discussions broke down almost seven weeks ago, largely over the size of the package.
Senate Republicans had countered the Democrats’ offer with a $1.1 trillion proposal, but subsequently moved a much smaller $650 bill to the Senate floor. Democrats mocked the legislation as woefully insufficient — Schumer called it “emaciated” — and they voted unanimously to sink it.
Since then, the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has shifted the focus of Senate Republicans squarely on the process of filling the vacancy with a Trump nominee before the elections. That’s led to speculation that an agreement on coronavirus relief will be even tougher to reach than it was before.
Still, Pelosi said Thursday that she’s hopeful the negotiations with Republicans will resume “soon,” adding that Democrats will be “very soon” unveiling the details of their spending package.
“I’m eager to hear what [the White House negotiators] have to say when they come,” she told reporters in the Capitol.
Unlike the government funding bill, the coronavirus stimulus has no real deadline; rather, it’s been the severity of the impact on health and the economy that’s driven Congress to act on four previous rounds of emergency relief. But there is an exception: the airlines are set to run out of emergency funding at the end of the month, and major airline companies are poised to furlough tens of thousands of employees the following day.
“Sept. 30 is fraught with meaning for them,” Pelosi said Thursday.
Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), who heads the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said he remains hopeful a deal is still possible before then.
“I have agreement with my leadership that it would be a part of a package — if we get a package,” he said.
The parties cleared one major obstacle on Tuesday, when they struck a deal on legislation to fund the government beyond September, likely avoiding a shutdown. In a subsequent letter to House Democrats, Pelosi said she was able to secure that agreement because Democrats stuck together through the talks. She asked for similar unity amid the coronavirus negotiations, suggesting yet again that she’s holding out for a deal.
“Our unity served us well yesterday,” she wrote Wednesday, referring to the government funding deal. “Our unity will again serve us well in the ongoing COVID-19 relief efforts.”
That message is sure to disappoint the moderates fighting to secure the Speaker’s commitment to a vote on some form of stimulus before Congress recesses for the elections. But veterans of Capitol Hill said they’re confident Pelosi will find a way to bring the various factions together in the coming days — and ultimately win the bipartisan deal they all agree on.
“I don’t know if we can get one before Oct. 2 — certainly every effort is gonna be made to do so,” said Larson. “But I’ve watched her [Pelosi] long enough to know that she’s determined to keep us here — albeit subject to the call — until we do.
“She’s not going to go softly into the night.”