WASHINGTON — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is taking a gamble in coronavirus relief negotiations, playing hardball in eleventh-hour talks when she thinks she has more leverage over President Donald Trump than ever.
For weeks, the California Democrat has been drawing a tough line with a president increasingly desperate to produce a pre-Election Day achievement as he lags in polls. Trump would like to send out a new round of stimulus payments bearing his name before Nov. 3. His demands have become more insistent amid signs that the economy is wavering. An additional 898,000 Americans filed unemployment claims last week, the Labor Department said Thursday, the 30th straight week of severe disruption for workers.
Now, as Pelosi has batted down offers from the White House, arguing that they are not good enough and will not address the needs of the American public, some Democrats are urging her to make the long-elusive deal. She has pressed her case in private calls, referring to a recent White House offer as a “slush fund” that the president could use to his own political advantage, according to two Democrats on calls with her, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss them. Her argument is that the White House could try to use some of the money based on Trump’s wishes and not Congress’s intent.
Still, there is a growing concern that if the speaker doesn’t say yes to something soon, voters could have to wait months for financial assistance and the economy could deteriorate precipitously during that span.
“When families and businesses are hurting, and it looks like we have to wait until February for action, we simply can’t dismiss any help out of hand,” said Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., the leader of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, who has been encouraging the speaker to make a deal for weeks. “I’m sure there are areas for improvement, but we should stay at the table until we can get this across the finish line.”
Pelosi’s stance has politicians on both sides squirming. Trump took direct aim at her approach, writing on Twitter that “Nancy Pelosi couldn’t care less about the American People or the great American Worker. She should approve needed STIMULUS now. Most other Dems agree. Republicans are ready to go, I am ready to sign!!!”
The president’s tweet overstated the GOP’s appetite for a deal; Senate Republicans have rebelled against the administration’s push for a giant new spending bill.
But the issue is a sensitive subject for the speaker. Politics, she has often argued, has nothing to do with her position, and suggestions to the contrary have infuriated her. On Tuesday evening, for example, the typically poised Pelosi was so angered by CNN host Wolf Blitzer’s suggestions that she was letting “the perfect be the enemy of the good” that she accused him of being an apologist for the GOP who didn’t know what he was talking about.
The issue is also extremely sensitive inside the House Democratic Caucus, where some members want Pelosi to make a deal but are afraid of calling out the powerful speaker by name.
No one wants to undercut Pelosi’s bargaining hand, and the bulk of the caucus remains strongly supportive of her approach.
Still, with millions of Americans out of work and in increasingly dire straits, some lawmakers are growing more vocal with their fears about the risks of not reaching an agreement quickly. Congress has not passed legislation since April to approve new economic relief or health-care spending for the pandemic, and Democrats fear that if Trump loses the election he’ll be in no mood to bargain.
“I would like to see a deal now,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., a freshman lawmaker from a vulnerable district. “And what’s important to me is not the dollar amount but knowing that the central features like state and local government relief are funded for at least several months, because the need is immediate and great.”
At the very least, some Democrats, including Malinowski, argue that the House should pass a White House-backed package and send it to the Senate, forcing Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Senate Republicans to contend with it as they are focused on filling the Supreme Court vacancy.
“My fear is that if Trump loses the election, we’re done until February because he’s not going to be in any mood to help or cooperate with anybody,” Malinowski said.
“If we take the view that we really want to make a deal, we can make a deal,” said another Democrat, Rep. Ro Khanna, Calif., whose views Pelosi dismissed in her CNN interview Tuesday night, saying he was not privy to the particulars of the talks. “My point is just let’s make sure we don’t go empty-handed.”
The pressure has led Pelosi to go on the defensive this week: On a private call with some of her members Wednesday, she assured her colleagues that she is serious about wanting a deal with the White House.
“Why would we even talk to each other if we didn’t want a bill?” she asked, referring to her ongoing conversations with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, according to a person familiar with her comments who spoke on the condition of anonymity to divulge them.
Then, she ticked off a list of problems with the most recent White House offer of a $1.8 trillion package, including the inclusion of liability protections for businesses, a nonstarter for Democrats. Other liberal members of the caucus backed Pelosi, according to people on the call, arguing that the White House plan would hurt the underprivileged.
“We can’t have a deal that goes backward,” Pelosi told the group.
Some lawmakers worry that the speaker is refusing to take a deal because of the political ramifications of giving Trump a win, although virtually no Democrat will say that publicly.
It’s an argument Republicans have been making for months. Rep. Tom Reed of New York, the GOP leader of the Problem Solvers Caucus, which released a bipartisan road map for a deal several weeks ago, accused Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., of putting political prospects before positive outcomes.
“They’re adamant about not giving the president a win this close to the election because they’re so close to the brass rings of power, be it the White House or the Senate, and they’re willing to make the American people suffer all the way to February … and that’s appalling,” Reed said. “Take the deal, take yes for an answer.”
For Pelosi, there is little upside politically to making a deal she doesn’t want before Election Day. Currently, Republicans are bearing the brunt of voter wrath about Trump’s pandemic response, with House Republicans expected to lose seats in November, according to most political handicappers. Even Pelosi’s most vulnerable House Democrats are doing far better in the polls than many imagined they could, with some pulling in record fundraising hauls.
In the Senate, Republicans are privately worried that they will lose control of the chamber. And on the presidential trail, former vice president Joe Biden is considered the heavy favorite, given Trump’s dismal approval ratings.
Trump, facing potential political carnage for the GOP, has stark imperatives for getting a deal. Not so for Pelosi, who told fellow lawmakers this week that “I don’t think our leverage has ever been greater.”
Additionally, the House has passed two wide-ranging coronavirus relief bills — a $3.4 trillion package in May and a narrower $2.2 trillion version at the beginning of this month — while the GOP-led Senate has not acted. Senate Republicans have made their distaste for the White House’s $1.8 trillion proposal clear, leading Pelosi’s allies to question why the onus should be on her when the Senate hasn’t acted and the White House can’t get Republicans in line behind the president’s proposal.
“The time for action was months ago, when the House first acted,” said Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Ill.
Video: http://www.washingtonpost.com/video/politics/how-democrats-have-defended-their-22-trillion-coronavirus-stimulus-bill/2020/10/14/97cda1c5-2a36-4c9a-990c-74491909529f_video.html (The Washington Post)