WASHINGTON – House Democrats expressed anxiety Tuesday about the prospect of adjourning for the election without a new coronavirus relief deal, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., announced that the House would remain in session until a new agreement is struck.
But within hours of those comments, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., clarified that lawmakers would not actually remain in Washington beyond their scheduled recess date of Oct. 2, with lawmakers instead required to be on call in case they must return. This is the same arrangement lawmakers have worked under for more than a month. White House officials have remained open to a deal but have not expressed an urgency to make concessions.
White House adviser Jared Kushner suggested in an interview Tuesday on CNBC that a deal might have to wait.
“The hope is that we’ll still get to a deal. It may have to be after the election,” Kushner said.
Democrats in recent days have expressed a growing interest in reaching a deal but have not unified around a precise path forward after their earlier proposals were rejected by Republicans. The latest setback came Tuesday, when Pelosi’s top lieutenants dismissed a $1.5 trillion proposal from the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus. Democratic leaders labeled the plan, which had support from a number of rank-and-file members in their party, as insufficient to meet the needs at hand. This seemingly left Congress no closer to a solution than when talks between top Democrats and White House officials broke down in early August.
The developments occurred on the first full day the House was back in session from its August recess, with lawmakers eyeing a three-week sprint that may include passing a stopgap spending bill to fund the government by Sept. 30.
Pelosi said passage of a new coronavirus relief bill was the top priority.
“We have to stay here until we have a bill,” she said on a conference call with House Democrats, according to a Democratic aide on the call who spoke on the condition of anonymity to recount her comments.
Pelosi showed no signs of budging from the position she’s held since the House passed the $3.4 trillion Heroes Act in May, legislation Republicans and the Trump administration dismissed as they waited months to start talks that ultimately went nowhere.
Pelosi is holding out for wide-ranging legislation with a price tag of at least $2 trillion that would include generous aid for cities and states, as well as unemployment and nutrition assistance, stimulus checks for individual Americans, money for coronavirus testing and tracing, help for the U.S. Postal Service and elections, and more.
She rejected the notion of a slimmed-down, or “skinny,” bill, such as the $300 billion measure Democrats blocked last week in the Senate.
“A skinny bill is not a deal. It’s a Republican bill,” Pelosi said on the conference call.
With Republicans unwilling to agree to legislation anywhere near the scope Pelosi wants, some Democrats have begun to discuss other options. There are about 29 million Americans receiving some form of jobless aid, and many households are struggling to pay their rent and other bills. State and city budgets also are under severe strain and many have cut large parts of their workforce as they wait for Congress to decide whether to approve more assistance.
The stock market has mostly recovered its losses from March, however, and President Donald Trump has suggested that a robust recovery is underway. But Democrats, including many freshmen who flipped GOP seats in 2018 and helped the party retake the House majority, represent districts where individuals, small businesses, local governments and schools remain in dire need of help.
The centrist-leaning New Democrat Coalition, whose members include a number of freshman lawmakers in tough reelection fights, held a conference call Monday night to emphasize the need for action before Congress adjourns for the recess. Lawmakers in the group said they supported Pelosi and wanted a good bill, but also suggested that action to extend unemployment insurance and a few other aid programs would be better than nothing.
“We want a deal that’s on a robust, comprehensive package. And barring that, we’d like the House to take some sort of action,” said Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., head of the New Democrat Coalition.
The Problem Solvers Caucus in the House released its own attempted compromise Tuesday morning, a $1.5 trillion proposal that could grow larger or smaller depending on infection rates and vaccine progress. Trump administration officials have encouraged the group’s efforts, but top Democrats rejected it, with eight House committee chairs issuing a joint statement saying it “falls short of what is needed to save lives and boost the economy.”
Congress passed four bills totaling about $3 trillion in aid in March and April, but it has not acted since. Many of the programs agreed to in the initial round of spending have expired, including a $600 weekly enhanced unemployment benefit that expired July 31. Trump stepped in last month with some limited executive actions, including replacing the $600 benefit with one half that size, but the money for that is running out.
Some House Democrats in tough reelection races are under growing pressure to take action to help their constituents. In one race in Virginia, where Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria is defending her seat against the Republican she defeated in 2018, an outside group has run ads attacking her for inaction on coronavirus relief.
Luria said in an interview Tuesday that she was pleased to hear Pelosi pledge action.
“The truth is that the bottom-line number isn’t as important as the fact that we need to as a country respond to people who are in need during an unprecedented public health crisis,” Luria said.
Another Democrat in a close race, Rep. Conor Lamb, D-Pa., told reporters Tuesday that action on coronavirus relief was crucial for him and his colleagues even if it’s just to demonstrate to voters that Republicans are the ones who are unwilling to compromise.
“I think that if people are able to see us stay here and offer a proposal that is easy to understand, simple and tailored to the pandemic, regardless of what size it is, and it’s rejected by them, then we will have done an important thing which is show people that we’re reasonable,” Lamb said.
Pelosi and her top lieutenants have shown scant interest in considering a bill with a price tag under $2 trillion.
At the same time, if it becomes clear in coming days that no comprehensive deal is in reach, Pelosi may start holding votes on individual issues such as funding for coronavirus testing, to show that House Democrats are trying to address the problem.
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The Washington Post’s Paul Kane contributed to this report.