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Pelosi seeks to put pressure on GOP in COVID-19 relief battle

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiGOP operative installed as NSA top lawyer placed on administrative leave: reports Budowsky: Democracy won, Trump lost, President Biden inaugurated Biden taps career civil servants to acting posts at State, USAID, UN MORE (D-Calif.) on Tuesday sought to heighten the pressure on Republicans to move a new round of coronavirus relief, announcing that the House will return to the Capitol next month to vote on another aid package if a bipartisan agreement is struck before the elections. 

Pelosi stopped short of promising a House vote on a new emergency stimulus proposal before the chamber recesses at the end of September — a tactic endorsed by a growing number of moderate Democrats concerned about the political optics of leaving Washington without acting to address the health and economic fallout of the deadly pandemic.  

Although the House passed the $3.4 trillion HEROES Act in May — a bill ignored by Senate Republicans — conditions on the ground have changed significantly in the four months since then, as the coronavirus death toll approaches 200,000, schools struggle to reopen, and tens of millions of workers remain unemployed. A growing chorus of centrist lawmakers are wary of returning to their districts just weeks before the elections with nothing new to show. 

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“It’s not acceptable to my constituents for me to say, ‘We’re not doing something because four months ago, we did the HEROES Act,’” Rep. Anthony BrownAnthony Gregory BrownDemocrats to levy fines on maskless lawmakers on House floor Growing number of lawmakers test positive for COVID-19 after Capitol siege Democrats offer bill fining lawmakers who don't wear masks in Capitol MORE (D-Md.) told The Hill outside the Capitol. “So I’m hearing a lot from my constituents: Relief, relief, relief. It’s four months later, and they don’t even know what’s in the HEROES Act.”

“It’s almost insulting to them to say, ‘In the HEROES Act, we’ve got one trillion for state and local, $75 billion for families,’ but where is that money?” he added. “They don’t want to hear the obstacle is solely sitting in the Senate.”

The strategic approach to the next round of coronavirus aid is splitting the caucus, with Democratic moderates — including those in the Blue Dog, New Democrat and Problem Solvers groups — pressing for action this month, while a large group of liberals and Pelosi loyalists are backing the Speaker’s hard-line resistance to moving a slimmer bill, or cutting the HEROES Act into smaller pieces. 

“I don’t really see the point of negotiating with ourselves,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), chairman of the powerful Rules Committee.

Yet the moderates are finding their voice as the House has returned to Washington this week after a long summer recess. 

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Leaders of the Blue Dog Democrats have, for weeks, pressed Pelosi and other party leaders to take up another relief bill before the elections. On Monday, leaders of the New Democrat Coalition piled on, warning that lawmakers in battleground districts could be particularly harmed by congressional inaction. And the heads of the Problem Solvers, a bipartisan group of centrists, unveiled a new, $1.5 trillion aid package on Tuesday designed to pressure leaders in both parties to get moving on an elusive compromise.

“We are not in any way attempting to undermine the Speaker's negotiating positions,” said Rep. Ann KusterAnn McLane KusterThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Sights and sounds from Inauguration Day Democrats to determine leaders after disappointing election Pelosi seeks to put pressure on GOP in COVID-19 relief battle MORE (D-N.H.), who heads the New Democrats messaging arm. “Having said that, we are taking the position that we want a deal and we don't think we should adjourn until we have it."

“We’ve gotta do something,” echoed Rep. Pete AguilarPeter (Pete) Ray AguilarAOC v. Pelosi: Round 12? Maloney to lead Democrats' campaign arm House Democrats pick Aguilar as No. 6 leader in next Congress MORE (D-Calif.), the whip of the New Democrats. 

The growing unrest prompted Pelosi to announce Tuesday that the House will remain in session until a deal is reached. 

“We are committed to staying here until we have an agreement,” she told CNBC’s Jim Cramer. 

The practical effects of the announcement, however, will likely be slight.

House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerBudowsky: Democracy won, Trump lost, President Biden inaugurated Congressional leaders present Biden, Harris with flags flown during inauguration LIVE INAUGURATION COVERAGE: Biden signs executive orders; press secretary holds first briefing MORE (D-Md.) acknowledged that most lawmakers will likely return to their districts when the scheduled session ends on Oct. 2, leaving party leaders seeking to hash out an agreement with the White House. If such a deal emerges, then members would be called back to Washington. In that sense, the dynamics would look very similar to those surrounding the long August recess, when the Capitol was virtually empty.

“You could look at it as a distinction without a difference of the last few months,” Hoyer said on a press call. “But in another sense, it tells members, ‘Look, we know the election’s coming up, we know you want to go back and campaign. But understand this is a priority ... and that we are going to address it as soon as we possibly can.’” 

Both Pelosi and Hoyer also conducted back-to-back phone briefings with the New Democrats on Tuesday afternoon, outlining the party’s plans for the remainder of the month. 

On that call, Pelosi vowed not only to stay in session until an agreement is made, but to keep lawmakers in Washington until a deal is struck, if the caucus decided to do so, according to a source familiar with the conversation. 

Hoyer, for his part, amplified his previous assertion that the House should vote on a new Democratic stimulus bill before the chamber adjourns at month’s end.

Some Democrats downplayed any divisions in the party’s highest ranks.

“Steny is not at odds with Pelosi,” said Brown, who spoke to Hoyer, a fellow Maryland Democrat, on the floor Tuesday. The two leaders merely differ “in the details,” he added. 

Still, the difference in degrees has not gone unnoticed among moderates, who are hoping Hoyer’s approach wins the day. 

“Steny certainly has been much more vocal in saying we should bring something sooner rather than later,” Brown said.