With little progress on COVID talks, House centrists renew push for a deal

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi won’t recess the House until there’s an aid deal, but moderate Democrats say it’s time to drop the hardball strategy.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
Sept. 15, 2020, 8 p.m.

House Democratic leaders say they won’t recess for the November elections without a coronavirus aid package, but that’s not keeping moderate Democrats from voicing their frustration as negotiations stall.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told her caucus Tuesday that they won’t leave until another relief package is done, but leadership isn’t stepping off its position against a piecemeal approach, instead opting to press the $3.4 trillion bill passed by the House in May or at least a $2.2 trillion top-line offer they made to the White House in August.

Lawmakers passed four massive aid packages in March and April, but negotiations on a fifth bill have stalled for weeks amid partisan disagreements over spending levels. An expansion of unemployment benefits expired in July, and aid to airlines will run out at the end of this month.

Moderate members of Pelosi’s caucus—some facing competitive races in November—want action on some sort of COVID-19 aid quickly. They say that the House Democrats’ effort to pass their sweeping legislation is over and now’s the time to advance a measure that their Republican counterparts will take up.

“When American people are dying and businesses are shuttering their doors, we shouldn't be focused on the political optics. We should be focused on getting something done,” said Rep. Stephanie Murphy, a cochair of the moderate Blue Dog Democrats. “And that means putting something forward that [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell would be willing to put to the floor for an up-or-down vote.”

Groups of moderate Democrats have been pressing leadership for weeks to reach a deal with the White House and Senate Republicans on a COVID-19 package. They pushed again in a caucus-wide call Tuesday morning, just before the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus released a $1.5 trillion coronavirus-aid framework supported by 25 members from each party.

“The bottom line: We can’t wait; we can’t play political games here,” Rep. Josh Gottheimer told reporters at a Tuesday press event. “The American people need the negotiators to get back to the table.”

Murphy backs the Problem Solvers’ proposal but says she would have liked to have seen more aid to the employee-retention tax credit. Blue Dogs sent a letter to House leadership in late August urging them to restart coronavirus aid talks.

“I think both of those efforts combined with the conversations and caucus calls and coalition calls—it represents an increasing level of anxiety to get something done on behalf of our constituents,” Murphy said.

Leadership remains firmly in control of the negotiations, but in the past weeks they’ve made little progress.

On CNBC, Pelosi brushed back the need to advance a “skinny” aid bill containing only provisions on which Republicans and Democrats broadly agree and address more controversial issues later.

“There is no ‘later’ with this administration," Pelosi said. "This is the opportunity, and the skinny deal is a Republican bill; that’s not a deal at all."

Last week, Senate Republicans attempted to advance a pared-down $300 billion aid package, but Democrats blocked the measure on a procedural vote.

House Democrats lowered their top-line offer from $3.4 trillion to $2.2 trillion before talks with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows broke down in August. White House adviser and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner told CNBC on Tuesday that a deal may not come soon.

“It may have to happen after the election because there obviously are politics involved,” Kushner said.

The proposal from the Problem Solvers Caucus, a group of 50 moderate House Republicans and Democrats, would provide another $1,200 stimulus check for many individuals, boost nutrition assistance, extend student-loan forbearance through the end of the year, implement rental assistance and stabilization, and add up to $600 per week of enhanced unemployment benefits.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters during a conference call that the group’s proposal didn’t constitute an official Democratic offer but that it offered “useful ideas.” Hoyer said the group's top-line, however, was too low.

“I think the Problem Solvers are lower than what would be a responsible deal, but I think their ideas are useful and maybe it will encourage our Republican friends to come up from believing that states and locals don’t need help; they do need help,” Hoyer said.

The proposal does show that there is at least some Republican appetite for items on the Democratic wish list that Republican negotiators have so far rejected, such as $500 billion for aid to states and local governments. It also has money for election security and the census, neither of which was in the Republican “skinny” bill.

The centrist New Democrat Coalition held a Monday press conference to lay out their priorities for a relief bill and press leadership to return to the negotiating table, saying that members in competitive districts could be hurt by inaction.

Many House progressives are unlikely to opt for a significantly pared-down version of the HEROES Act and have backed Pelosi’s hardball approach with the White House.

Democrats praised Pelosi’s decision to keep the House in session, but procedurally it will have little effect. Lawmakers will likely head back to their districts to campaign and briefly return to Washington to vote on any coronavirus-aid deal, much like they did over the August recess when they returned to vote on legislation pushing back against the administration’s cost-cutting measures to the Postal Service.

“It’s a distinction without a difference from the last few months, but in another sense it tells members, ‘Look, we know the elections are coming up, we know you want to go back and campaign, but understand, this is a priority, critical interest in that we’re going to address it as soon as we possibly can,’” Hoyer said.

Even if Pelosi keeps her chamber open past Oct. 2, McConnell has yet to say whether he would change the Oct. 9 departure date for senators if there’s no deal by then.

Rep. Conor Lamb, a moderate Pennsylvania Democrat, said that moving another aid package is essential, if only to show constituents that Democrats remain at the negotiating table.

“I think that if people are able to see us stay here and offer a proposal that is easy to understand, simple, and tailored to the pandemic, regardless of what size it is, and it’s rejected by [Republicans], then we’ll have done an important thing, which is to show people that we’re reasonable and just trying to drag the country out of this on a nonpartisan basis,” Lamb said.

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