Democrats’ $3 trillion virus aid bill back on for House vote Friday

McConnell: House Democrats’ wish list is going nowhere fast in Senate

Speaker Nancy Pelosi gives a thumbs-up to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell after the Senate passed coronavirus relief legislation last month.  The next round of aid talks won’t be as easy. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Speaker Nancy Pelosi gives a thumbs-up to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell after the Senate passed coronavirus relief legislation last month. The next round of aid talks won’t be as easy. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted May 12, 2020 at 2:51pm, Updated at 11:04pm

The mammoth COVID-19 relief package House Democrats unveiled Tuesday is expected to come up for a vote Friday after all, according to a letter distributed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office.

“The staggering scale of this crisis demands extraordinary urgency, and therefore, the House will be proceeding with our vote on the [relief bill] on Friday,” several House committee leaders wrote in the letter, sent to Democratic lawmakers late Tuesday.

The $3 trillion-plus measure had been running into some turbulence with the party’s left flank, casting doubt on party leadership’s plans for a Friday vote.

The new legislation would be the biggest federal response so far to the health and economic emergency. While the package contains numerous party priorities that Democrats have been pushing for months, some rank-and-file lawmakers were concerned about provisions that didn’t make the cut.

Reps. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., and Mark Pocan, D-Wis., who co-chair the Congressional Progressive Caucus, sent a letter Tuesday to House leaders asking them to push the scheduled Friday vote to next week. A senior Democratic aide left open the possibility of a delay earlier Tuesday evening, telling CQ Roll Call that “we will vote on it when we have the votes.”

The sweeping legislation would provide another round of cash payments to most families, more loans to businesses, housing assistance, medical research funding, an extension of expanded unemployment insurance benefits, tax breaks and more. Aid to cash-strapped states and local governments alone could amount to about $1 trillion.

The bill is likely to serve as the opening bid from Democrats in what could be protracted negotiations with the GOP-controlled Senate and White House on a compromise measure.

But first, Democratic leaders will have to convince enough members of their own party to back the bill despite the exclusion of provisions large swaths of members sought, such as a paycheck guarantee for workers and automatic stabilizers to keep relief programs running.

“As we read the more than 1800-page legislation, we must have more time to determine what is in and what is not in this legislation, as well as a conversation about the bill as a caucus,” Jayapal and Pocan said in their letter, obtained by CQ Roll Call. They asked for a full Democratic Caucus meeting to discuss the package and “any amendments that might be needed to ensure that it truly reflects the priorities and the work of the entire caucus.”

Republicans have sought to pump the brakes on additional aid, while expressing concern over rising red ink. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy called the Democrats’ bill a “liberal wishlist that has no chance of becoming law” and accused the House majority of stacking the bill with provisions that have nothing to do with COVID-19.

Pelosi, however, defended the package as targeted to the pandemic. She told CNN on Tuesday that she gets “a little heat” from Democrats when their priorities are left out. But Pelosi noted that the cost would be “endless” if all of her party’s demands were included in the bill, as Republicans have charged.

Democrats said they felt compelled to push forward with a new aid package as quickly as possible. “There are millions and millions and millions in America that see the urgency of the crisis that confronts them and are expecting us to act to continue to help them,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters Tuesday.

Money, it's a gas

With a price tag exceeding $3 trillion, the package would easily dwarf the roughly $2 trillion measure signed into law in March.

Among the new bill’s major elements, according to a Democratic summary:

  • State and local aid. Almost $916 billion in direct aid would be provided to make up for lost revenues suffered by states and local governments from the economic shutdown. 
  • Food assistance. About $10 billion would be used to cover increased participation in the food stamps program and to expand benefit levels by 15 percent.
  • Housing. The bill proposes $75 billion to help homeowners unable to make mortgage payments or pay property taxes and utilities. And it would provide $100 billion in rental assistance for low-income tenants.
  • Broadband. About $5.5 billion would go to emergency home internet connections and the creation of Wi-Fi hot spots for broadband service.
  • Postal Service. $25 billion would be available to make up for lost Postal Service revenue from the pandemic.
  • Education. More than $100 billion would be used for education, mostly for a State Fiscal Stabilization Fund to help states deal with the strain from shuttered schools.
  • Public health fund. $100 billion for hospitals and other health care providers for pandemic-related costs, and $75 billion for virus testing.
  • Medicaid. States would get a boost in federal Medicaid funding, with the federal matching share increased by 14 percentage points.
  • Health insurance. Workers who are laid off or furloughed could maintain their employer’s health coverage through the COBRA program with full premium subsidies for about nine months.
  • Unemployment insurance. An expanded benefit of $600 per week, set to expire in August, would be extended through Jan. 31, 2021.
  • Hazard pay. A $200 billion "Heroes Fund" would give grants to employers to provide premium pay for "essential" workers.
  • Rebate checks. Taxpayers would receive another round of direct payments of up to $1,200 per adult and $1,200 per dependent for up to three dependents. The credit begins phasing out after $75,000 of adjusted gross income, as in the previous payment round.
  • Tax relief. The $10,000 limit on deductions for state and local taxes would be lifted for the 2020 and 2021 tax years. And an employee retention tax credit would be made more generous by covering the reimbursement costs of 80 percent of wages instead of 50 percent.
  • Election security. $3.6 billion in state grants to prepare for elections during the pandemic.
  • Small-business loans. The Paycheck Protection Program would be made more flexible by extending loan forgiveness periods and removing a restriction on how much loan money must be spent on payroll.

But the bill is likely getting nowhere in the Republican-controlled Senate, at least for the time being. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell attacked the bill as a nonstarter even before it was introduced.

“This is exactly the wrong approach,” the Kentucky Republican said on the floor Tuesday. “The American people don’t need a far-left transformation. They just need a path back to the historically prosperous and optimistic moment they had built for themselves until about 12 weeks ago.”

Hoyer said that any deal to provide additional economic relief has to include more money for states and localities. But McConnell has said that, at minimum, additional aid to states and local governments beyond the $150 billion provided in the March bill must be paired with liability protections for businesses allowed to reopen.

And top White House officials have said in recent days that there should be a pause in negotiations while the impact of earlier rounds of coronavirus aid is evaluated.