Phase 4 coronavirus response? Not everyone is on the same page

House Democrats already eyeing priorities for future rounds of relief

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell flashes a thumbs-up to the media Wednesday after speaking on the floor about the coronavirus stimulus package. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell flashes a thumbs-up to the media Wednesday after speaking on the floor about the coronavirus stimulus package. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 25, 2020 at 8:37pm

As lawmakers struggle to finish what they’ve dubbed “phase three” of their response to the coronavirus pandemic, a $2 trillion stimulus bill, there was already disagreement among congressional leaders on the need for a phase four or more.

“This is not going to be the last bill,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on the “PBS Newshour” on Wednesday.

The massive phase three economic measure includes a $339.9 billion appropriations package that would provide $100 billion to hospitals, other health care providers and suppliers while spreading billions more among emergency disaster relief, schools, public transit and various federal agencies. It would also direct checks to individuals and families, expand unemployment benefits and provide aid to small businesses and corporations in distressed industries.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer told the Democratic Caucus on a conference call this week that he expected a fourth and fifth phase of legislative responses to the pandemic, according to a source on the call who requested anonymity to describe the private deliberations.

Some members on the call talked about items they wanted to push for that were left out of phase three, the source said.

For example, House Administration Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren of California said Democrats must secure a federal mandate requiring states to provide vote-by-mail or other remote options in the presidential election, with funding for state implementation.

Democrats secured $400 million in election assistance in the phase three bill, but a federal vote-by-mail mandate would cost roughly $4 billion to implement, according to a senior Democratic aide.

Pelosi has also been pushing for emergency health and safety regulations to protect first-responders during the pandemic, first in phase two and then in phase three. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations were left out of the phase two and three deals, and she’s likely to keep pushing for these rules in the next round.

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Democratic plans

The House led negotiations with the White House on the first two phases of Congress’ response to the pandemic, but the Senate took the lead on the phase three negotiations. Pelosi signaled at the Capitol on Wednesday evening that her team would be back in the game on future installments.

“We’ll be writing ours as well,” she said of another stimulus measure. “It will be some of the things we don’t have. We don’t have full OSHA. We don’t have the family and medical leave to the extent that we will.”

Pelosi said they want to expand family and medical leave under existing federal law to include taking care of parents in cases where they aren’t associated with health centers or other providers.

She also expanded on other issues that are Democratic priorities.

“We have pensions we thought could get through the bill. The president supported what we wanted to do, but the Senate Republicans did not, so it’s not in the bill,” she said of making sure pension funds are shored up.

“We’re probably going to need more money,” Pelosi added.

GOP divisions

House Democrats weren’t the only ones thinking about a fourth phase.

Senate Rules and Administration Chairman Roy Blunt told reporters earlier this week that once phase three clears Congress, the Senate will likely leave D.C. for three weeks but use that time “to get ready for whatever is phase four.”

White House legislative affairs director Eric Ueland did not rule out a need for more legislation but said the administration’s immediate goal is on “very aggressively and very rapidly” implementing the phase three bill once it’s passed.

“We will obviously see what happens over the next few weeks,” he said. “There are significant needs that aren’t just economic. There are policy challenges, there are regulatory thoughts, regulatory recommendations and a lot of other considerations that the president and his leadership team on dealing with this crisis are going to be taking into account. So there is more to do obviously at our end of the executive branch and potentially here in Congress.”

Other Republicans, however, weren’t sure another bill would be needed.

“One of the goals in this package is to do everything we can to not have to do a phase four. … That’s why you’re going to see a really big deal,” North Dakota Sen. Kevin Cramer said over the weekend as negotiations on phase three were underway.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told reporters Wednesday that discussions of additional legislation were premature.

“I’m not convinced yet that we need a fourth bill,” the California Republican said. “You’re just asking people to pass a $2 trillion bill and saying you need another one?”

McCarthy said he’s only hearing Pelosi talk about another bill because of her unfilled “wish list that she’s just put out — to change election law, to [include] the Green New Deal.”

“No, we don’t need any of that,” he said. “None of that has anything to do with coronavirus, so I don’t see that passing or going anywhere.”

Told that many senators are also talking about additional legislation, McCarthy suggested Congress pause and wait to see how the first few phases of relief are implemented and whether they have the impact that lawmakers envisioned.

“I think you should take a deep breath, let the bills go to work and then decide,” he said.

Jennifer Shutt, Katherine Tully-McManus, Paul M. Krawzak and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.