House

Pelosi seeks to wrangle caucus behind next COVID-19 bill

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) faces a tough road this month convincing GOP leaders to back yet another massive round of emergency coronavirus aid.

The more immediate challenge, however, is getting her own caucus on board.

Democratic leaders have made clear that the legislation will feature a host of big-ticket items: billions of dollars more to expand coronavirus testing, unemployment benefits, small business loans and aid for state and local governments.

But as the roughly $2 trillion House package known as CARES 2 comes together this week, party leaders and committee heads are getting an earful from rank-and-file members of all stripes urging the addition of their own pet provisions — a long and growing wish list that includes everything from food stamps and rental subsidies to student loan debt relief and bailouts for local chambers of commerce.

Pelosi has vowed to “go big” with the Democrats’ opening salvo that will be followed by bipartisan negotiations. Yet the clamor from the caucus — and the sheer profusion of proposals fighting for space in what might be the last major relief package for some time — is forcing party leaders to weigh some tough choices as they craft a final product designed to lend them the strongest hand at the table.

To pull that off will require a delicate dance of culling certain provisions without shedding support within the diverse caucus. Democratic leaders are eager to avoid losing any leverage when the legislation moves to the Republican-controlled Senate.

It’s a balancing act that some leaders are already acknowledging.

“We’re going to have to determine priorities,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Wednesday on a press call. “There are a lot of things that could be done, and could be done legitimately. We will not be able to do them all.”

Hoyer, Pelosi and other leaders are aware of the need to protect their front-line members — the so-called majority makers who flipped GOP seats in the 2018 wave election — from walking the plank and voting for liberal provisions that could hurt their reelection chances in November. 

On a recent call with Democratic chiefs of staff, Dick Meltzer, Pelosi’s policy director, said the legislation should be reasonable and responsible, according to a Democratic source on the call, something that House Democrats can sell to the Trump administration and the American people.

“Do we want a press release or a bill that we can pass into law? That is the fight coming down the pipe on the next bill, and Pelosi will need to balance that,” the source said, characterizing the current state of play in the 233-member caucus.

Across the ideological spectrum are the progressive Democrats urging leadership to carve out bold, liberal positions. Those voices are already critical that the first phases of emergency relief leaned too favorably toward banks and big corporations while neglecting workers, low-income families and other vulnerable people hit hardest by the pandemic.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), the liberal lion representing a hard-hit district in Queens, opposed the previous emergency bill for that reason. Now, party leaders are hoping to prevent an even larger wave of defections.

“We want to move ahead on a bipartisan fashion. The first thing that’s going to be necessary is for us to have a package on which we have agreement in the Democratic Caucus,” Hoyer said. “We are getting very close to having that.”

Like the four coronavirus bills before it, the CARES 2 package is designed to alleviate the fallout — both medical and economic — of the fast-spreading pandemic.

The bulk of the Democrats’ emerging proposal is expected to replenish programs established in the earlier rounds of emergency aid. Those provisions, widely supported within the caucus, include new funding for testing, protective medical equipment, jobless benefits, small businesses, and state and local governments left battered by the crisis.

Democrats say the latter tranche, which could approach $1 trillion by itself, is needed to ensure that police officers, medical personnel and other front-line workers don’t lose their jobs as state coffers dry up.

“These people are risking their lives to save other lives,” Pelosi told MSNBC on Wednesday. “And they may lose their jobs because of the economic consequences of the coronavirus.”

Other elements of CARES 2 are expected to build off of the earlier relief efforts. For instance the initial CARES Act, signed into law March 27, gave most Americans one-time stimulus checks up to $1,200, and Democrats want to provide more relief in the coming months.

During a call with the Democratic whip team Wednesday night, Pelosi and other lawmakers voiced support for including in the next package $2,000 in recurring monthly payments for Americans — a concept known as a universal basic income made popular by former presidential hopeful Andrew Yang.

A source who described the whip call said Pelosi didn’t endorse any specific bill, but Progressive Caucus Co-chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) have authored legislation giving every American $2,000 a month for the duration of the crisis, followed by a monthly $1,000 payment for an entire year after the crisis ends. But a plan of that expense is sure to raise concerns from moderate members and fiscal hawks, wary of the impact on deficit spending.

Other items on the Democrats’ priority list include those rejected by Republicans in the earlier fights — things Pelosi has vowed to include this time around. Among them are provisions to protect voting systems ahead of November’s elections, boost funding for the U.S. Postal Service, improve broadband infrastructure in underserved communities and expand worker protections under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), who represents hard-hit Brooklyn and Queens, has offered a bill that would release “vulnerable” people, including pregnant women and those with health issues, from prison to protect them from COVID-19.

Meanwhile, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), the powerful Finance Committee chairwoman whose sister is dying of COVID-19, has made housing the focus of her CARES 2 efforts. She’s pushing for legislation that would end evictions spurred by the pandemic and calls for $100 billion in assistance for those struggling to pay their rent.  

While Pelosi has signaled support for rental assistance, Waters tweeted that she’s ready “to fight till hell freezes over.”

Liberal firebrand Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) wants to go further. Her Rent and Mortgage Cancellation Act — backed by Ocasio-Cortez and two dozen other liberals — calls for a cancellation of rents and home mortgage payments through the coronavirus pandemic.

But that progressive provision won’t fly with Republicans, or even moderate Democrats facing tough races in the fall. One idea being pushed by business-minded, centrist Democrats, however, is to save struggling chambers of commerce around the country by allowing them to qualify for aid from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), originally designed to help small businesses.

Freshman Democratic Reps. Gil Cisneros (Calif.) and Chris Pappas (N.H.) have teamed with GOP Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick (Pa.) and Greg Steube (Fla.) on the bill.

Local chambers have “been reeling from the effects of the coronavirus and are in desperate need of relief,” Cisneros said in a statement Wednesday. “This bipartisan bill ensures that our chambers and trade groups can access PPP and continue to provide much-needed assistance to our communities.”

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Andrew Yang Brian Fitzpatrick CARES Act Chris Pappas Coronavirus COVID-19 Gil Cisneros Greg Steube Hakeem Jeffries Ilhan Omar Maxine Waters Nancy Pelosi Pandemic Pramila Jayapal Rashida Tlaib Steny Hoyer
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