Despite pressure for COVID-19 relief deal, stalemate continues

So far, no formal negotiations are taking place

Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., joined by other members of the Problem Solvers Caucus, speaks at a news conference Tuesday unveiling the group's COVID-19 relief proposal.   (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., joined by other members of the Problem Solvers Caucus, speaks at a news conference Tuesday unveiling the group's COVID-19 relief proposal. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted September 15, 2020 at 6:10pm

Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Tuesday heeded a call from her members to commit to keeping the House in session until there’s a coronavirus relief deal, but the vow does little to break the stalemate in bipartisan negotiations that is at the heart of Democrats’ concerns.

House Democrats have been fretting privately for weeks and more publicly since returning to Washington on Monday about being sent home to voters without any additional COVID-19 assistance enacted.

Members say the concerns are more about wanting to get aid into the pockets of struggling Americans as soon as possible than the optics of not securing relief before voters head to the polls. But the latter is starting to weigh on some members as hopes of a bipartisan deal have faded over the past month. Some Democrats, including House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, think the chamber should vote on a new plan of their own if a bipartisan deal doesn’t come together.

“I personally do not believe we ought to leave without taking some action,” the Maryland Democrat said in an interview Monday.

Hoyer reiterated that view Tuesday as he joined a virtual meeting of the New Democrat Coalition, a group of some 100 centrist Democrats whose leaders have been among those calling for action.

“We want a deal that’s on a robust, comprehensive package,” Washington Rep. Derek Kilmer, the coalition’s chairman, said on a press call Monday evening. “And barring that, we’d like the House to take some form of action on a COVID relief and recovery package. But we don’t want a meager package. We don’t want to accept a bad deal.”

Bipartisan negotiations have been deadlocked since early August over disagreement about how much aid is needed. Pelosi has resisted calls for another House messaging vote, arguing that Democrats shouldn’t do anything to undermine the priorities in the $3.4 trillion package the House passed in May. The California Democrat has said she won’t restart talks with White House negotiators until the GOP agrees to at least $2.2 trillion.

But the GOP is not going to spend that much, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters Tuesday. His conference unified around a package last week that would cost $300 billion after offsets, but Senate Democrats blocked it.

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who’ve been leading negotiations with Democrats on behalf of the GOP, are willing to end up somewhere in the low-$1 trillion range but have resisted Pelosi’s $2.2 trillion demand.

The House had been scheduled to adjourn Oct. 2 through the November elections for the typical election-year campaign recess. But Pelosi announced privately Tuesday on a Democratic Caucus call and then publicly on CNBC that the House would remain in session until there’s a bipartisan deal on additional COVID-19 aid.

“We are committed to staying here until we have an agreement — an agreement that meets the needs of the American people,” she told CNBC. “We’re optimistic that the White House, at least, will understand that we have to do some things.”

But “staying here” doesn’t mean all members will have to hang around the Capitol, waiting and wishing for a deal that may never come.

Pelosi personally has barely left Washington since negotiations on another aid package started in earnest in July, even as they stalled in August. The few instances when she’s returned to California include a brief trip in August during the Democratic National Convention and a trip last week to deal with the wildfire crisis in her state.

‘Subject to the call of the chair’

Hoyer told reporters on a press call Tuesday that leaders would likely allow members to go home next month with the understanding they would be called back quickly if a deal is reached.

“Frankly, giving people 24 hours’ notice means we’re not adjourned, we’re subject to the call of the chair. Obviously, we’re not going to negotiate this on the floor. Members don’t have to be on the floor to do this,” he said. “What the speaker is saying and what I would reiterate is we will be voting on a piece of legislation as soon as we get a deal.”

Pelosi, however, told the New Democrat Coalition she’d be willing to keep members physically in Washington if that’s the will of the caucus, according to a senior Democratic aide familiar with the call.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, however, signaled his conference likely won’t be in town.

“I believe the Senate, if there’s an agreement, should come back and pass it right away. But we have to have an agreement, and we have to have the president meet us in the middle,” the New York Democrat told reporters Tuesday.

McConnell is unlikely to keep senators in Washington either but could set things up procedurally to argue that the Senate is still in session. The Kentucky Republican wasn’t asked about that Tuesday during his weekly post-GOP lunch news conference, but he made sure to point out Pelosi’s predicament with her caucus.

“I understand that she’s getting a lot of pressure internally from a number of her members who would like to see some results,” McConnell said. “I think the American people would also like to see some results. We know that requires a compromise between the administration, which has the ability to sign it into law, and the Democratic House. So I still hope we’ll be able to get there.”

Bipartisan effort

One sign of how entrenched the stalemate has become was that a $1.5 trillion proposal offered by the 50-member bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus was quickly dismissed despite offering compromises for several key sticking points in the negotiations.

For example, the Problem Solvers proposed giving state and local governments $500 billion in new assistance, as well as more flexibility to spend leftover funds from a prior relief bill enacted in March. Democrats wanted $915 billion in new money for direct state and local aid, Senate Republicans wanted no new money, and the White House offered around $150 billion.

Their plan also offered a compromise on the expired weekly federal enhanced unemployment benefit that would renew it at $450 for eight weeks, after which it would transition to $600 per week but capped at 100 percent of a person’s previous wage. Democrats want the full $600 benefit renewed without conditions, but Republicans want a lower amount or a provision to cap it at a percentage of previous wages.

An unusual joint statement from several House Democratic committee leaders Tuesday afternoon said the Problem Solvers plan “falls short of what is needed to save lives and boost the economy.” Notably absent from the chairs signing the statement, however, was Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon, who spoke out during the private Democratic Caucus call about the need for the chamber to do something, according to a Democratic source.

Still, the plan — released as framework, not bill text — gives Problem Solvers members, many of whom are considered vulnerable for reelection this cycle, an opportunity to tell voters they offered a compromise and deflect blame for any inaction on a new aid bill before the elections. The group formally endorsed the framework, which requires support from 75 percent of its members. 

Despite increased calls for action, many lawmakers have expressed doubt that a deal will come together before the election, with neither side showing any signs of budging. That scenario is not ideal for either party, especially lawmakers running for reelection in competitive districts, and could lead to some voter backlash.

“If we can’t come to a deal, there’s going to a great deal of disappointment,” Rep. Donald S. Beyer, D-Va., vice chairman of the Joint Economic Committee, told CQ Roll Call. “Then the question is, who do they blame?”

Jennifer Shutt and Chris Cioffi contributed to this report.