WASHINGTON – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi shifted course Thursday and moved to assemble a new and smaller coronavirus relief bill to form the basis for renewed talks with the White House, amid mounting pressure from moderates in her caucus and increasingly alarming economic news.
The new legislation would be significantly narrower in scope than the $3.4 trillion Heroes Act the House passed in May. Pelosi, D-Calif., has more recently focused on an additional $2.2 trillion in aid – a figure Republicans say is too high. But in a meeting with House Democratic leaders Thursday she said the new bill would be about $2.4 trillion, because of urgent needs arising from restaurants and airlines. Details were provided by a person familiar with the meeting who spoke on the condition of anonymity because it was private.
Pelosi asked key committee chairs to get to put together the bill.
The package is expected to include stimulus checks, aid for airlines, small businesses, cities and states, as well as rental assistance, unemployment assistance and funds for election security and the U.S. Postal Service.
“We are still striving for an agreement,” Pelosi said in the leadership meeting. She suggested that the legislation could come to a vote on the House floor even if no bipartisan deal is reached.
News of Pelosi’s push lifted the Dow Jones industrial average 200 points before much of those gains evaporated; the index closed up 0.2% as prospects for a deal remained cloudy. The Dow has slumped in September, losing nearly 9% in three weeks.
“I think we’re headed towards a resurgence of the virus in the fall, and until we defeat the virus, you’re not going to have a full economic recovery,” said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass.
Pelosi had resisted demands from moderates in her caucus to narrow her ambitions or put a new bill on the floor, insisting that Republicans should be the ones to offer new concessions. Her stance has become increasingly problematic as endangered House Democrats have demanded action, with some threatening to sign on to a Republican-led procedural move to force a vote on a small-business-relief bill.
Rep. Cindy Axne, D-Iowa, a freshman lawmaker who flipped a Republican-held seat in 2018, was gathering signatures from other lawmakers Thursday on a letter to Pelosi that said in part: “We write to you now to implore you to bring a revised and streamlined COVID-19 relief package to the floor next week. Americans are counting on us; they cannot wait any longer.”
There are mounting signs that the economy could stall again after a brief rebound in the summer. Airlines are threatening to lay off thousands of workers after Oct. 1, when payroll protections included in the Cares Act expire.
The window for action is narrow, and it is unclear how quickly a bipartisan deal could be reached, if at all. Negotiations involving Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin collapsed in August and never really resumed. Congress is scheduled to adjourn at the end of next week through the election, though lawmakers could be called back to vote on a deal. President Donald Trump last week pushed Republicans to pursue a massive government spending bill to help the economy, though he has suggested recently that the economy is rebounding strongly on its own.
Mnuchin reiterated in an appearance before the Senate Banking Committee on Thursday that he saw the need for more stimulus and was prepared to resume talks. He mentioned that aid should focus on assistance for small businesses. He also has said the White House would support another round of stimulus checks for Americans, something Democrats have also said they want to authorize.
“I do think we need comprehensive relief,” Mnuchin said. “I’m available any time.”
Appearing at the same hearing, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell agreed that more assistance is needed. Without it, Powell said, people may start pulling back on spending or lose their homes as the money they got from stimulus checks or federal unemployment aid runs out. The unprecedented $3 trillion in stimulus Congress approved in the spring has been dwindling rapidly, and some programs have expired.
“We’ll see sooner or later, probably sooner, that the economy has a harder time sustaining the growth that we’ve seen,” Powell said. “That’s the risk.”
Powell said small businesses and the unemployed were in need of immediate help. The Fed chair testified on Capitol Hill for three consecutive days this week, delivering a message that Neal said reinforced to Democrats that more needed to be done to help the economy.
Other Fed officials have sounded the alarm in recent days. The unemployment rate has come down from its highest level in April, but it was still 8.4% in August, up from the 3.5% threshold in February. If companies stop rehiring workers and furloughs continue, particularly in local governments and the travel industry, the economy could slip backward. That could lead to a pullback in consumer and business spending and then another round of layoffs, compounding problems further.
Republicans dismissed Pelosi’s move as insincere, noting that she was increasing her asking price from $2.2 trillion to $2.4 trillion before talks had even begun.
“It shows again she’s not serious about getting a covid relief bill, that she’s just playing politics,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. “And what’s really sad about this is it’s really hurting the American public.”
Partisan disputes that sank earlier negotiations – including Democrats’ demands for generous state and local aid and Republicans’ insistence on liability protections for businesses – also showed little sign of having been resolved.
New Census Bureau survey data showed that 23 million adults reported that their household did not have enough food to eat in the first half of September and that 1 in 4 households with a child did not have sufficient means to pay rent.
On Thursday, the Labor Department reported that 860,000 Americans filed jobless claims the week before, the 27th straight week that was worse than any single seven-day stretch in at least 40 years.
About 26 million Americans receive some form of jobless aid more than six months into the pandemic, and the emergency jobless benefits that Trump authorized more than a month ago are expected to soon run out for millions of Americans. The enhanced jobless aid that Congress and the White House approved in March expired at the end of July.
U.S. officials are also bracing for a mess in commercial real estate as large and small companies face difficult decisions about how to pay leases for buildings that are not being utilized at full capacity. The NYC Hospitality Alliance, which includes restaurants, bars and nightclubs, said a survey of its members found that 87% could not pay their full August rent.
Renters are protected by an eviction moratorium through the end of the year, but unless Congress approves rental assistance before then, there could be mass evictions once the moratorium runs out.