Blue Dogs call for restart of relief negotiations

Moderate Democrats cite priorities where bipartisan compromise is possible; several in tough reelection battles

Rep. Max Rose, D-N.Y., among the most endangered incumbents, says "failure is not an option" on virus aid. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Max Rose, D-N.Y., among the most endangered incumbents, says "failure is not an option" on virus aid. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 20, 2020 at 2:08pm

The Blue Dog Coalition of moderate House Democrats is circulating a letter they plan to send to congressional leaders urging them to get back to the bargaining table on a new round of coronavirus relief legislation.

The coalition, which includes several lawmakers in difficult reelection races, outlines areas of potential compromise between the parties including on unemployment benefits, state and local government aid and direct payments to households.

The effort comes as Speaker Nancy Pelosi is preparing to bring up legislation for a vote Saturday that would provide funds for the U.S. Postal Service, but wouldn't address other aid measures that are still hung up in a dispute with the White House and Senate Republicans.

“As the House prepares to vote this weekend on a bill to protect the United States Postal Service, we urge you to restart bipartisan, bicameral negotiations on a fifth COVID-19 relief package that is commensurate with the scale of this public health and economic crisis,” the group wrote in the draft letter obtained by CQ Roll Call.

[Postal Service bill unveiled in House as Democrats ponder sweeteners]

The letter, which the group plans to send to congressional leaders later Thursday or Friday, notes that “there is also considerable common ground” between a $3.4 trillion measure the House passed in May and a $1 trillion package Senate Republicans released in July.

Communication breakdown

Negotiations led by Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows broke down earlier this month amid a disagreement on how much aid Congress should be providing.

Pelosi and Schumer were willing to cut the cost of the Democrats bill by $1 trillion by moving up expiration dates, but Mnuchin and Meadows rejected that, saying Democrats needed to relax their demands on unemployment benefits and state and local funding.

Senate Republicans since have been circulating text of a scaled-down package that drops controversial items like an earmark for a new FBI building in downtown Washington, but adds language that would forgive a prior $10 billion loan for the Postal Service.

[Scaled-back GOP aid package would write off $10 billion postal loan]

The Blue Dogs' letter does not specifically call for a "skinny" relief bill, but they identify specific priorities they believe can obtain bipartisan support.  Those include extending enhanced unemployment benefits, small business loans and tax incentives for retaining workers during the pandemic, funding for state and local governments and education, a second round of direct payments and oversight provisions.

While the Blue Dogs call the expiration of the $600 weekly federal unemployment benefit “legislative malpractice,” they do not endorse a specific level at which the benefit should be renewed.

“The weekly benefit should be extended at a level sufficient to enable beneficiaries to provide for their families and to support their local economies,” they wrote.

Democratic leaders are demanding the benefit be continued at $600 per week, while Republicans have floated a variety of proposals for lowering the benefit so it won’t pay people more for unemployment than they made while working.

The Blue Dogs also did not offer a compromise proposal to bridge the impasse over state and local funding, but they said it’s “imperative” Congress provide local and tribal governments additional financial support to help stave off painful budget cuts.

Democratic leaders want to provide $916 billion. The White House had offered around $150 billion during the negotiations.

Campaign considerations

While the Blue Dogs always urge bipartisan compromise, the urgency in this case is especially acute for the 10 coalition members who are considered vulnerable for reelection this cycle, according to Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales.

Six of those 10 members voted against the $3.4 trillion bill the House passed in May. The two most vulnerable Blue Dogs, Reps. Max Rose of New York and Kendra Horn of Oklahoma, took different approaches, with Rose voting “yes” and Horn voting “no.”

Both are in races considered a "tossup" and want to see negotiators reach a deal on another round of relief.

“Failure is not an option when tens of millions are out of work and hurting,” Rose tweeted Aug. 7 as the last negotiators' meeting ended with no imminent plans to return to the table. “It's simple: Extend unemployment, not cut it. Give state and local funding to safely reopen schools and keep cops and firefighters working. More action, less partisan nonsense.”

Horn offered a similar message on July 31, as the House adjourned and let members go home but on notice to return if and when there were a deal to pass.

“We need lawmakers to be at the negotiating table, not on August recess,” she tweeted. “Our nation is facing a historic health and economic crisis. Congress must stay and find a bipartisan path forward on the next stimulus. We make a deal, or no recess. It's that simple.”

Other Blue Dogs in tough races have also been calling for action. After President Donald Trump issued executive orders designed to provide some relief on unemployment, payroll taxes and student loans, Rep. Jared Golden called it “overreach of executive authority” that comes up short in addressing the crisis.

“We need congressional leaders to drop the political games and lead their caucuses to a compromise,” the Maine Democrat tweeted Aug. 10.

Golden voted against the $3.4 trillion package. Inside Elections rates his race "Tilt Democratic."

Meanwhile Blue Dog member Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, D-N.M., partnered with Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., on a separate letter to Pelosi dated Aug. 19 calling for a standalone vote on their bill to extend enhanced unemployment benefits through Jan. 31 and provide a one-time payment of $3,600 to help households cover child care, transportation and personal protective equipment costs.

Inside Elections rates Torres Small's race Tilt Democratic and considers Horsford's seat safe.

Other Democrats in tough races besides the Blue Dogs have also been calling on leadership to get a deal. Iowa Rep. Cindy Axne, whose race Inside Elections rates Tilt Democratic, sent Pelosi a letter Wednesday urging her to “bring up a simplified, straightforward COVID-19 relief package” when the House returns to session Saturday to vote on the Postal Service bill.

Axne voted against the House bill in May because it included what provisions she felt had nothing to do with pandemic relief. “I must insist that the next package does not include special favors and handouts,” she said in her letter to Pelosi.

Axne also signed onto a letter led by New Democrat Coalition leaders calling for a standalone vote Saturday on extending the enhanced unemployment insurance benefit and tying its duration and amount to economic indicators. That letter had a total of 117 Democrats sign on, including moderates and progressives representing a wide array of viewpoints in the caucus.