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House Democrats jam GOP with coronavirus bill

House Democrats’ surprise move to vote this week on a second coronavirus bill has intensified the pressure on Senate Republicans to follow suit, even as both chambers head into a weeklong recess when the pandemic is expected to worsen.

Leaders of both parties are scrambling to address the economic fallout of the crisis as new cases have popped up around the country, sparking widespread public anxiety and economic upheaval. But House Democrats are charging ahead more aggressively, scheduling a vote Thursday on a sweeping package designed to temper the financial toll on coronavirus victims. 

Shortly after that vote, House lawmakers will jump on planes and trains and decamp to their districts for what is scheduled to be a 10-day break from the Capitol, leaving Senate Republicans with the difficult question of whether to consider the House package, take up one of their own, or punt the issue until after the break. 

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“They damn well had better do it,” Rep. Alan LowenthalAlan Stuart LowenthalFace mask PPE is everywhere now — including the ocean Native Americans urge Deb Haaland to help tackle pollution in communities of color Bipartisan bill seeks to raise fees for public lands drilling MORE (D-Calif.) said of the Senate. “This is a crisis that the nation is facing and this is just a down payment. Everybody is going to be at risk potentially.”

While Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiBiden angers Democrats by keeping Trump-era refugee cap Democratic Rep. Mondaire Jones calls on Breyer to retire Biden rebuffs Democrats, keeps refugee admissions at 15,000 MORE (D-Calif.) and her House Democrats had vowed to move quickly on an economic response to the coronavirus turmoil, the Thursday vote comes even sooner than many in the caucus expected. 

The brisk pace at once provides vulnerable Democrats with a positive message to relay to constituents back home while creating an optics problem for Senate Republicans who — if they don’t tackle the issue themselves — will be forced to defend that inaction to home-state voters while the crisis escalates.

Indeed, Pelosi’s decision to stage the vote this week came after a number of rank-and-file lawmakers had urged an expedited timeline so they’d have ammunition heading home.

“The daily news demands that we do something, and nobody wanted to go home without addressing the most significant crisis — worldwide crisis — in our lifetime,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.).

Rep. Matt CartwrightMatthew (Matt) Alton CartwrightSix ways to visualize a divided America Will Biden continue NASA's Artemis program to return to the moon? House Democrats pick Aguilar as No. 6 leader in next Congress MORE, a Pennsylvania Democrat facing a tough reelection, echoed that message, adding that the optics of a Congress working hard to confront a global emergency are also crucial to the recovery. 

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“I think that Americans will never admit it, but a lot of them look to Congress as a source of confidence,” he said.  “And so continuing to do the business that we were sent here to do is vital — not only to do it, but to be seen to be doing it.”

Democrats are already poised to pounce if GOP leaders drag their feet.

“I think it really does put the pressure on them,” said Rep. Ann KirkpatrickAnn KirkpatrickSurgeon who treated Gabby Giffords after shooting launches House bid in Arizona These House lawmakers aren't seeking reelection in 2022 Arizona state senator announces bid for Kirkpatrick's seat MORE (D-Ariz.), whose daughter is a physician in Arizona. “We’re taking this really seriously and we’re hearing it from our constituents.”

Senate Republicans, meanwhile, were taking a wait-and-see approach on Wednesday, eager to see exactly what ideas Democrats put forward in their proposal before moving forward with their own plan.

“I don't think any decisions have been made at this point. I think it's just a function of seeing what [Democrats] pull together,” Senate Majority Whip John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneSenate GOP to face off over earmarks next week Biden outreach on infrastructure met with Republican skepticism McConnell seeks to end feud with Trump MORE (R-S.D.) told reporters. “We have no idea what's in it, or if it's something the White House, the administration might support.”

The Democrats’ legislation is designed to provide financial help to those most directly affected by the coronavirus outbreak, including provisions to expand unemployment insurance, extend paid sick leave benefits and ensure that low-income children don’t miss meals due to school closures. 

It follows on the heels of last week’s $8.3 billion emergency relief package, which concentrated more heavily on the health care aspects of the virus, which the World Health Organization labeled a pandemic on Wednesday. 

House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerPelosi on power in DC: 'You have to seize it' House panel approves bill to set up commission on reparations Race debate grips Congress MORE (D-Md.) said the Senate is capable of moving swiftly on emergency legislation when it must, and predicted that that would ultimately be the case on an economic relief package. 

“As soon as we pass something, I think the Senate can pass it pretty quickly,” he said. “They may amend it and send it back to us, but I don't think there's any doubt that they'll move on it quickly.”

Still, Hoyer also acknowledged that the House is leaving Senate GOP leaders with a short window to act before the break, and suggested the work would be finalized after Congress returns to Washington later in the month.

“I don't know that it'll be before we leave on recess,” he said. “These are complicated issues.”

Complicating the negotiations, Trump has called on Congress to quickly pass an economic stimulus package that includes a payroll tax cut through the end of the year — a non-starter in the eyes of Democrats and even some Republicans.  

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The president will deliver an address to the nation about coronavirus on Wednesday night, following meetings with health and business executives at the White House and a personal plea to GOP senators on Tuesday.

In search of a bipartisan deal, Pelosi met with Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven MnuchinDemocrats justified in filibustering GOP, says Schumer Yellen provides signature for paper currency Biden's name will not appear on stimulus checks, White House says MORE, Trump’s point person on the economic response, in her Capitol office on Tuesday, and spoke with him again Wednesday morning. As of Wednesday evening, many Democrats were still holding out hope that the sides could reach an agreement before the recess. 

Meanwhile, there was a flurry of activity in the House related to the coronavirus. 

The epidemic was the focus of the Congressional Black Caucus’s weekly lunch on Wednesday, while the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus huddled with Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon to discuss coronavirus fallout. 

Later in the afternoon, House Democrats held an emergency all-member meeting where leaders unveiled details of their response package. 

“We’ve got to do it before we leave. The American people are expecting action from their representatives. … It’s imperative that we take the first step this week,” former Black Caucus Chairman G.K.Butterfield (D-N.C.) told The Hill. 

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“The American people will hold us accountable if we don’t rescue them. There is not only a health price to pay but there is a political price to pay if we don't respond. I remember the response to Hurricane Katrina — that was the demise of George W Bush.”

Jordain Carney contributed.