House Democrats worry last legislative message before election lacks COVID relief

Some members also concerned about marijuana vote without coronavirus relief

House Democrats are pressing Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., pictured walking through the Russell Senate Office Building after a television interview Monday, to schedule a vote this month on coronavirus relief even if there's not a bipartisan deal.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
House Democrats are pressing Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., pictured walking through the Russell Senate Office Building after a television interview Monday, to schedule a vote this month on coronavirus relief even if there's not a bipartisan deal. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted September 15, 2020 at 8:58am, Updated September 16, 2020 at 12:35pm

Corrected 12:35 p.m. | With only 11 legislative days scheduled before the November election, House Democrats are fretting about the possibility of going home to voters without any additional COVID-19 assistance enacted into law.

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.

In election years, the September legislative session is often used to fund the government and pass messaging bills that signal the majority party’s priorities to voters before Congress adjourns for a monthlong campaign recess. This year it’s also Congress’ last shot to pass another bipartisan relief package to help families and businesses that are struggling due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bipartisan negotiations have been deadlocked for more than a month over disagreement on how much aid is needed. House Democrats passed a $3.4 trillion package in May, and Senate Republicans supported a $300 billion (after offsets) measure last week that Senate Democrats blocked.

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

Concerned that the answer will include their party, rank-and-file House Democrats, mostly from the moderate wing, are lobbying leadership to prepare a backup plan in case a bipartisan bill does not come together. Members have offered various ideas about what a new aid package could look like, but their common goal is to show that Democrats have moved toward compromise, according to multiple sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the internal discussions.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, who also has privately questioned whether the chamber should pass new relief legislation, confirmed to CQ Roll Call that absent a bipartisan deal — which everyone is still hoping for — he thinks Democrats should do something on their own.

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

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The House is scheduled to adjourn Oct. 2 through the election. Hoyer said he intentionally left the schedule for the last week of September open to allow time for action on coronavirus relief.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi has so far resisted calls for another House vote, arguing that Democrats shouldn’t do anything to undermine the priorities they passed in the $3.4 trillion package. The California Democrat has said Democrats are willing to comprise by moving up expiration dates to cut the cost to $2.2 trillion, but they’re not willing to budge on the scope of relief.

“We all know that we need to come to agreement,” Pelosi said Monday on MSNBC. “Coming to agreement is not, though, to say, ‘What’s the least we can do?  Let’s ignore the states. Let’s ignore the need for the testing. Let’s ignore the hunger. Let’s ignore the evictions.’”

As some Democrats pushed for additional House action during a biweekly caucus call last Thursday, Pelosi warned her members against falling for Republicans’ calls for a narrower package and told them not to be a “cheap date,” according to a source on the call who requested anonymity to describe the private discussion.

The 50-member bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, comprised of centrists in both parties, on Tuesday is releasing a $1.5 trillion bipartisan relief proposal the group has endorsed, which requires support from 75 percent of its members. The proposal stakes out compromise positions on two key sticking points, with $500 billion for state and local governments and an initial extension of federal enhanced unemployment benefits at $450 per week, but does not meet the bar Pelosi has set for a deal.

‘Some form of action’

Rank-and-file members have been careful not to question Pelosi’s negotiating strategy as they’ve started to go public with their calls for another coronavirus relief vote.

“We want a deal that's on a robust, comprehensive package,” Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., chairman of the moderate New Democrat Coalition, 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.”

Pressed for details, Kilmer said, “It’s too early to know where things could land.” He said he’s asked Pelosi and Hoyer to provide the coalition an update during their weekly virtual meeting. Hoyer told CQ Roll Call he doesn’t expect any decisions on an aid package to be made this week.

Other New Democrat Coalition leaders who joined Kilmer on the press call also emphasized the need for a relief vote before the House adjourns.

“We very much as a class want to make sure that we see something done before we leave,” Pennsylvania Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, the coalition’s freshman leadership representative, said.

Rep. Scott Peters of California, one of the coalition’s vice chairs, said the New Democrats prefer a comprehensive approach over a piecemeal one, but noted that they’ve shown a willingness to move forward on any package that helps people and doesn’t preclude later action on additional aid.

“All of us are willing to compromise on amounts and timing,” Peters said.

Rep.  Ann McLane Kuster of New Hampshire, another vice chair, emphasized that nothing the coalition is pushing for is inconsistent with what Pelosi has advocated.

“We are not in any way intending to undermine the speaker’s negotiating position,” Kuster said.

Pelosi has left herself some wiggle room to listen to the members’ main demand, which is that the House should not adjourn for the election without additional action.

“We will be here for the month of September at least, or as long as it takes,” Pelosi said on Bloomberg TV last week.

Other objectives

An aid package is one of “two major objectives” House Democrats hope to accomplish in the next few weeks, Hoyer said. The other is funding the government.

The House passed 10 of the 12 annual appropriations bills before the August recess. But the Senate hasn’t even taken up a single bill, so lawmakers are left to pursue a stopgap funding bill, the duration of which is “still under discussion,” Hoyer said.

“I want to put it on the floor next week,” he said. “I want to give the Senate at least a week to pass it. I want to make sure government doesn’t shut down.”

The other bills on the House’s schedule are mostly ones that were deferred due to the pandemic rather than targeted election-year messaging measures.

The bills on the floor this week that "deal with equity, equality and fairness,” as well as a package of bipartisan energy bills on the floor next week, had been part of the early 2020 agenda before the pandemic hit and upended the congressional calendar.

“We were supposed to do those in March, so they were somewhat delayed,” Hoyer said.

Some of the equity bills deal with racial inequalities and “have a lot more emphasis behind them” now after the police killing of George Floyd led to nationwide calls for racial justice, Hoyer said.

Two of the bills deal with school segregation issues Democrats have been working on addressing for years.

“School has started, so it’s timely,” Education and Labor Chairman Robert C. Scott, D-Va., told CQ Roll Call.

The House is voting Tuesday on a bill to provide grants to organizations seeking to help desegregate public schools. It is modeled after an Obama-era grant program that had teed up $30 million in aid, but the Trump administration canceled the program before any funds could go out, Scott said.

“We know that students do better in an integrated education,” he said, noting that data shows those students are more likely to earn higher marks, graduate and go to college.

[A bipartisan effort to turn a segregated school into a monument]

A related bill the House is taking up Wednesday seeks to override the 2001 Supreme Court decision in Alexander v. Sandoval that said people harmed by segregation do not have the standing to sue unless they can prove intentional discrimination. Democrats’ legislation would restore individuals’ ability to pursue civil action in cases of “disparate impact,” which right now only the Education Department has the standing to bring.

“I don’t think you can count on this administration bringing those cases,” Scott said.

The House this week will also take up a bill to codify workplace accommodations for people who are pregnant or dealing with childbearing-related medical conditions. Hoyer said the measure shouldn’t be needed, but there have been problems in recent years with workers late in pregnancy being forced to perform the same physical duties in order to keep working.

Marijuana bill in flux

Hoyer had previously announced that the House would vote next week on a bill to decriminalize marijuana, but some members have questioned the wisdom of voting on that ahead of the election.

The concerns, mostly from moderate Democrats in Republican-leaning districts, are twofold, according to a senior Democratic aide affiliated with the moderate wing of the caucus. One is the timing.

In the last month the Democratic Caucus has to make the case to the American people on how they’ll govern; why would the party want to prioritize helping marijuana smokers over people suffering economically from the pandemic? the aide said.

The other concern is that the provisions in the bill go well beyond legalizing marijuana — like wiping records of previous marijuana-related convictions — and could feed into Republican arguments that Democrats are against law and order. The GOP attacks have taken hold in some Democratic districts that Trump won in 2016 and Democrats shouldn’t be voting on a bill that could help amplify them ahead of the election, the aide said.

Hoyer told CQ Roll Call that the bill is “still under consideration for being scheduled,” but that the timing remains in flux.

"I think it has majority support of the House,” he said. “That bill has been on the ballot in a number of states throughout the country. When we put it on the floor, I think it will pass.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Rep. Ann McLane Kuster as the speaker on a press call.