Speaker Nancy Pelosi has directed House committee leaders to put together a more slender coronavirus relief package than the one that previously passed the chamber, in their latest offer in talks with the White House.
The House could vote on that as-yet-unreleased $2.4 trillion bill as soon as next week if GOP cooperation doesn't materialize, according to Democratic lawmakers. But Democrats say they're hoping for renewed talks with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and a compromise agreement that can actually become law.
Democrats will need to trim about $1 trillion from the legislation the House passed in May that previously served as their starting point in the talks. That's a hefty task for party leaders seeking to appease the rank-and-file, given the ongoing economic downturn, record unemployment and the likely upcoming surge in hospitalizations during cold and flu season.
And Pelosi wants to add more provisions that weren't in the earlier, more pricey bill, such as aid to airlines and restaurants, which will squeeze out even more of the May legislation.
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., said after a leadership meeting Thursday that negotiators are working on a “short time frame.”
There is considerable pressure to vote on something next week before heading home to campaign. Reps. Derek Kilmer of Washington and Stephanie Murphy of Florida, two leading moderate Democrats, said the chamber should vote on a bill even if there's no bipartisan deal.
Other moderates, including freshmen in tough reelection fights, are demanding not just a new bill to present in negotiations or a messaging vote on the floor.
"[I]t is essential that we send the Senate a compromise bill before the election that is reasonable and that can be signed into law by the President of the United States," Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey, Abigail Spanberger of Virginia and Dean Phillips of Minnesota wrote in a letter to Democratic leaders they were circulating for signatures.
Gottheimer was elected in 2016 in a district that President Donald Trump narrowly carried. Spanberger and Phillips each flipped GOP seats in the 2018 midterms. Of the three, Spanberger is considered the most vulnerable; Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales ranks her race "Tilt Democratic."
White House officials have said they can go as high as $1.5 trillion, which is the number included in a bipartisan plan offered by Gottheimer and others in the Problem Solvers Caucus last week. Caucus members have been discussing their plan with White House officials in recent days, even after it was dismissed by Pelosi and top committee leaders.
Hoyer said leadership's goal in presenting the new plan was to get back to the bargaining table.
“We want to get a deal with Secretary Mnuchin and the Senate because we want to get people help, not just messages,” he said. “So hopefully in the next few days we can get a deal.”
The decision to put out a bill reflecting reduced spending totals represents a reversal from the last few months.
Pelosi had offered to go down to $2.2 trillion in negotiations with Republicans, but repeatedly told her members they needed to hold the line on the House's original $3.4 trillion legislation as their official starting point in order to maximize negotiating leverage.
Pelosi went as far as telling House Democrats not to be a “cheap date” on a Sept. 10 conference call, according to a source who heard the comment.
Pelosi had wanted to Republicans to agree to a $2.2 trillion topline before any details were worked out. Writing a bill to a lower number without knowing if the GOP will come up to that higher figure risks Democrats negotiating against themselves, as the speaker had privately warned members earlier.
Heading into a meeting Thursday with her leadership team to discuss next steps, Pelosi left her options open but suggested she still prefers a bipartisan deal.
"I'm talking with my caucus, my leadership and we'll see what we're going to do," she said. "But we're ready for a negotiation. That's what we're ready for."
Appearing before the Senate Banking Committee on Thursday, Mnuchin said lawmakers should take up an aid package focused on areas of bipartisan common ground. That includes additional money for schools, extended unemployment insurance, additional direct payments to households and a second round of Paycheck Protection Program forgivable loans to businesses suffering significant revenue declines.
Mnuchin told panel members that he's agreed to restart talks with Pelosi about a compromise aid bill. But he dodged on the question of direct relief for states and localities, which is probably the biggest outstanding sticking point. "I look forward to sitting down with both Democrats and Republicans to see if we can agree on bipartisan support," Mnuchin said.
If negotiations resume, it will be the first time congressional Democrats and the White House have held serious talks since efforts broke down in early August.
Since then, Pelosi has repeatedly said that needs are growing as cases continue to crop up throughout the country, which has now passed 200,000 deaths.
During that time Hoyer has been among those pressing, privately and publicly, for Democrats to act on a new plan that's more realistic than the $3.4 trillion package that's gone nowhere for four months.
“I personally do not believe we ought to leave without taking some action,” Hoyer told CQ Roll Call in a Sept. 14 interview.
Democrats new $2.4 trillion proposal will still be substantially higher than what Senate Republicans have offered thus far. In July, they put forward a $1 trillion series of bills but Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was forced to shelve that effort after blowback within his conference over the price tag.
McConnell later released a scaled-down $650 billion aid package that was more than halfway offset by rescinding unspent funds from the $2 trillion relief law enacted in March. That measure had near-unanimous support among Republicans, but couldn't muster any Democratic votes to get over the Senate's 60-vote threshold.
The House is scheduled to be in session next week, though some are holding out the possibility of being in Washington even longer.
“By whatever means necessary,” Jamie Raskin, D-Md., said after leaving Thursday's leadership meeting. “People have been told to be prepared for anything.”
Jim Saksa contributed to this report.