Democrats, the party of government, are torn over coronavirus relief

Internal struggles burst into open as moderates threaten revolt over Pelosi’s COVID-19 aid stance

New Jersey Rep. Josh Gottheimer, flanked by other members of the Problem Solvers Caucus, speaks at a news conference Sept. 15 at the House Triangle to unveil their coronavirus relief package. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
New Jersey Rep. Josh Gottheimer, flanked by other members of the Problem Solvers Caucus, speaks at a news conference Sept. 15 at the House Triangle to unveil their coronavirus relief package. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted September 21, 2020 at 7:00am

ANALYSIS — As Washington has grown more polarized, Democrats, more than Republicans, have lamented the demise of compromise.

While Republicans stonewalled Barack Obama, they had no crisis of conscience. But Democrats, as the party that believes government can make a positive difference in people’s lives, are more conflicted about how and when to work with Donald Trump.

That was apparent in the deals they took on criminal justice in 2018, and on the new trade agreement with Mexico and Canada last year. Neither pleased the party’s progressive wing, but Democratic lawmakers were willing to take half a loaf, even though it gave Trump a win.

By contrast, Democrats’ deal-killing insistence on a comprehensive $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief bill this summer, and before that their rejection of a GOP policing bill, were out of character.

The party’s internal struggle burst into the open during the week of Sept. 14, when moderate Democrats facing tough reelection campaigns threatened revolt over Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s position on virus relief, while those in the Problem Solvers Caucus offered their own alternative, undercutting Pelosi by $700 billion. Without more federal aid, they argued, millions of unemployed Americans will suffer.

So when House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries took the stage on Sept. 15, his assertion that his party “remained united” strained credulity. And it quickly became apparent that Democratic leaders might be blinking.

Lines in the sand are disappearing. First, Democrats said that the $3.4 trillion relief bill they passed in May should be the starting point for negotiation. In August, Pelosi said she’d take $1.2 trillion less. Jeffries, who represents hard-hit Brooklyn, New York, backtracked further, saying the party would go down to “at least” Pelosi’s lower number “and then try to find common ground at that point.”

Even as they said it was inadequate, Democratic leaders are getting closer to the Problem Solvers’ $1.5 trillion proposal, a funding level the White House has signaled it could accept. Then it’s not far to the $1.1 trillion Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he’d spend in July.

One thing that stands in the way of a deal, now, is Democratic leaders’ reluctance to so publicly fold on the broader demands they made in the May bill they call the HEROES Act, with its $1 trillion for state and local governments and its rental and nutrition assistance, all of which Pelosi has previously deemed essential and nonnegotiable.

Judging by its inclusion in the Problem Solvers’ offering, Democrats might also have to accept liability protections for businesses, schools and health care providers that McConnell demands but that they have warned would allow businesses to ignore the dangers of the virus in order to reopen. That will be tough to swallow.

The other thing standing in the way is McConnell and Senate Republicans. To greenlight another $1 trillion or more in virus aid, the majority leader will lose the deficit hawks in his own conference. Majority leaders only bring bills to the floor that divide their own side in the rarest of circumstances. A president of the same party who commands them to can overcome that reluctance, and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows’ comment, that $1.5 trillion in new spending was “not a showstopper,” suggests Trump might issue such a command, if he can work something out with Pelosi.

Republicans on the Senate side of the Capitol awaited Trump’s signal, after the chamber fell short on advancing a $300 billion relief bill on Sept. 10. 

That relatively modest measure, limited as it was to extending expanded unemployment benefits, aid to schools, and funds for virus testing and tracing, had at least united the GOP, apart from the party’s most vociferous opponent of new deficit spending, Rand Paul of Kentucky. 

In the meantime, GOP senators have turned to messaging for the election, asking voters to keep the Senate Republican — a toss-up proposition according to political prognosticators — as a check on Democratic ambitions.

Republican senators warned that Democrats plan to abolish the Senate filibuster, the requirement that legislation win at least 60 votes, in order to move forward a progressive agenda that will include new taxes, the admission of the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico as states, and the addition of new Supreme Court seats to overcome a conservative majority there.

“This threat to permanently disfigure — to disfigure — the Senate has been the latest growing drumbeat in the modern Democratic Party’s war against our governing institutions,” McConnell argued.

The Senate GOP whip, John Thune of South Dakota, took up the line of attack, asking the electorate to consider what full Democratic control of Washington could mean. “I hope American people think long and hard about that when they vote this fall,” he said.

The Republicans have been less forthcoming about what they plan to do if the voters give them control of Washington.

The House GOP, in rolling out its “Commitment to America” platform on Sept. 14, promised to end the virus’ threat, restore the economy and reduce dependence on China, but the speakers were short on specifics. Representatives spent more time criticizing progressives’ calls to defund the police than delineating their own plans.

Years of scuttled ambitions have left the Democratic base impatient, and Democrats in Congress, more than ever before, seem willing to take unprecedented steps to assuage them. But it’s not clear Democrats would go to the lengths McConnell says they will.

“We know America needs strong bold change,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said, by way of explaining why Democrats are considering scrapping the filibuster. With wildfires sweeping the West, he said that included legislation to curtail climate change, but it’s hard to know now what else might be considered during the first 100 days of a Joe Biden administration.

Even a climate change bill — Schumer said Democrats viewed protecting the planet from global warming as a “moral obligation” — would have to overcome objections sure to come from Democrats in energy-producing states.

A Democratic majority unencumbered by the filibuster could move on bills now bottled up in the Senate, to overhaul policing, to restrict gun ownership, and to make it easier for unauthorized immigrants to become citizens.

And it might go in some of the directions about which McConnell is warning. D.C. statehood might be the likeliest. When the House voted in July to make the District of Columbia a state, only one Democrat objected. Contrast that with the last time the House took a D.C. statehood vote, in 1993, when 40 percent of the Democratic Caucus was opposed.

For now, though, Democrats aren’t talking about that, preferring to focus their assault on Trump’s handling of the virus, as the death toll neared 200,000.