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Pelosi digs in as pressure builds for COVID-19 deal

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiSpending deal clears obstacle in shutdown fight Ocasio-Cortez, Cruz trade jabs over COVID-19 relief: People 'going hungry as you tweet from' vacation Rep. Rick Allen tests positive for COVID-19 MORE (D-Calif.) is standing firm on Democrats’ demands for broad COVID-19 relief, shrugging off mounting pressure from Senate Republicans and a small but vocal group of moderate lawmakers in her caucus to pass a slimmer bill.

Her strategy carries risks, just weeks before Election Day, if voters deem House Democrats to be the main obstacle to another round of coronavirus aid, particularly after Senate Republicans mustered 52 votes in favor of their pared-down measure last week.

With that in mind, a growing number of moderate Democrats — including leaders of the Blue Dogs and the New Democrat Coalition, as well as a number of front-line lawmakers facing tough reelections — have pressed Pelosi and Democratic leadership to stage a pre-election vote on some version of emergency assistance for states, households and small businesses struggling through the pandemic, even if the package doesn’t check every box on Pelosi’s wish list.

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“They do feel strongly about the fact that leadership does need to negotiate with each other on a deal,” said a senior Democratic aide associated with the moderate wing of the party. “A vote on something before the members go back home,” the aide added, would “indicate at least that Democrats are moving toward a negotiating stance.”

Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pa.) noted that a long list of first-term Democrats came from “pretty hard-fought battles in pretty purple places” where constituents are expecting Congress to come together on a relief deal.   

“We very much as a class want to make sure that we see something done before we leave,” Houlahan said on a press call.

But with high unemployment, states flailing from squeezed budgets and a potential eviction crisis looming, Pelosi has shown no indication she’s ready to abandon her insistence that all of those issues be addressed in the next coronavirus bill, despite dwindling prospects for a deal before Nov. 3.

Pelosi’s position may reflect her confidence that public opinion on the pandemic is against President TrumpDonald John TrumpMinnesota certifies Biden victory Trump tells allies he plans to pardon Michael Flynn: report Republican John James concedes in Michigan Senate race MORE.

A recent poll found that a whopping 65 percent of respondents disapprove of President Trump’s response to the pandemic, suggesting voters are ready to blame the White House for any inaction on the next relief bill. To drive home the point, Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerUS national security policy in the 117th Congress and a new administration Voters say Biden should make coronavirus vaccine a priority: poll New York City subway service could be slashed 40 percent, officials warn MORE (D-N.Y.) have hammered the $484 billion Senate GOP bill as “emaciated” and a “pathetic” attempt to address a six-month-old crisis that has tanked the economy and killed almost 200,000 people in the United States.

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“We all want to have an agreement, but it has to be real, and what the Senate did was not real. ... Coming to agreement is not, though, to say, ‘What’s the least we can do?’ ” Pelosi said Monday on MSNBC.

What the GOP has put forward, she said, “is an insult to the intelligence of the American people.”

House Democrats in May passed the HEROES Act, which would provide $3.4 trillion in relief, including roughly $1 trillion for cash-starved cities, counties and states. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellImmigration, executive action top Biden preview of first 100 days Spending deal clears obstacle in shutdown fight McConnell pushed Trump to nominate Barrett on the night of Ginsburg's death: report MORE (R-Ky.) and Republicans have dismissed the package as a liberal pipe dream.

Pelosi has since said Democrats could agree to a $2.2 trillion package but go no lower.

One of the biggest sticking points is aid for cities and states, which Democrats say is critical to avert mass layoffs of police, firefighters and other public workers due to falling tax revenue. The GOP proposal that hit the Senate floor last week had no money for state and local governments, nor did it include money for rental assistance or food aid. Many Republicans point to a string of executive orders signed by Trump recently, arguing the administration is taking steps to address issues like evictions.

Democrats’ legislation also provides another round of $1,200 stimulus checks for most Americans, something that’s absent from the GOP bill even though Trump backs the idea.

Trump has taken a hands-off approach to the relief talks. He hasn’t spoken to Pelosi for nearly a year and has tapped Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - Trump OKs transition; Biden taps Treasury, State experience On The Money: Democrats accuse Mnuchin of sabotaging economy in dispute with Fed | Trump administration proposal takes aim at bank pledges to avoid fossil fuel financing | JPMorgan: Economy will shrink in first quarter due to COVID-19 spike Democrats accuse Mnuchin of sabotaging economy in dispute with Fed MORE and White House chief of staff Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump holds his last turkey pardon ceremony Overnight Defense: Pentagon set for tighter virus restrictions as top officials tests positive | Military sees 11th COVID-19 death | House Democrats back Senate language on Confederate base names Trump administration revives talk of action on birthright citizenship MORE to negotiate directly with the Speaker. Democrats have been quick to hammer Trump for being “missing in action” as the COVID-19 death toll climbs, pointing out that the president has golfed nearly 30 times at his private resorts in Virginia, New Jersey and Florida since he declared a coronavirus national emergency on March 13.

“Nearly 200,000 Americans are dead, 14 million are out of work, thousands are evicted from their homes every day. And Republicans are playing golf,” said a House Democratic leadership source. “Democrats have acted for the people while Republicans have worked — and failed — to hone their short game at their private golf clubs. Sad.”

While a vast majority of Democrats appear to back Pelosi’s hard-line approach to the talks, cracks are beginning to emerge as the House returns to Washington this week from a long summer recess.

During a caucus call last week, Rep. Derek KilmerDerek Christian KilmerHillicon Valley: House panel says Intelligence Community not equipped to address Chinese threats | House approves bill to send cyber resources to state, local governments House approves legislation to send cybersecurity resources to state, local governments Is Congress reasserting itself? MORE (D-Wash.), head of the New Democrats, pressed the urgency of reaching an agreement to empower members when they return home ahead of the elections. Pelosi responded by warning her troops not to be “a cheap date.”

Afterward, a number of lawmakers texted Kilmer to voice their support for his message, according to a person familiar with the discussion. Yet Kilmer on Monday emphasized that he wasn’t calling for a “meager” substitute of the HEROES Act, stressing the importance of more funding for housing, nutrition, the Postal Service and jobless benefits. But speaking for a growing number of moderates, he also cautioned against leaving Washington empty-handed.

“What I and other New Dem Members are hearing is that our constituents are hurting, and we have a sense of urgency to keep fighting to solve these problems,” Kilmer said in an email.

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Amid the weeks-long impasse, Senate Republicans are hoping such pressure on Pelosi from within her own ranks will force the Speaker to accept a slimmer relief package.

Yet in a liberal-heavy caucus, with Democrats fighting to rally their progressive base ahead of the elections, some observers are predicting Pelosi’s hard line will carry the day.

“Some of the problem solvers and Frontliners are panicking, but not enough,” a former Democratic leadership aide said Monday in an email. “Interested in seeing if Members are getting any pressure back home. That will be the X factor.”

“I think she will not budge,” the source added.