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Democrats scramble on COVID-19 relief amid division, Trump surprise

House Democratic leaders scrambled Wednesday for a cohesive legislative and political strategy on emergency coronavirus aid.

The Democrats are seeking a bill that can provide broad-based relief to struggling Americans, energize the party’s progressive base ahead of November and appease the various factions of the caucus now feuding over the right path forward.

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiDefense lawyers for alleged Capitol rioters to get tours of U.S. Capitol Gaetz, Greene tout push to oust Cheney: 'Maybe we're the leaders' Free Speech Inc.: The Democratic Party finds a new but shaky faith in corporate free speech MORE (D-Calif.) and House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerOn The Money: Weekly jobless claims fall to 498K, hitting new post-lockdown low | House to advance appropriations bills in June, July House to consider anti-Asian hate crimes bill, protections for pregnant workers this month Top Democrat: Bill to boost Capitol security likely to advance this month MORE (D-Md.) huddled in Pelosi’s office in the Capitol. Afterward, Pelosi spoke by phone 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, who has led the stimulus negotiations for the administration, revealing that gears are moving even as the impasse persists. 

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Hoyer emerged from the earlier meeting promoting Pelosi’s preferred strategy: negotiate with the White House and bring a bill to the floor only when a bipartisan deal has been reached. 

Yet that design is sure to rattle the Democrats who want assurances of a fresh vote on some version of coronavirus aid this month even absent an agreement with Republicans — a promise leadership has declined to make. 

Centrist Democrats are leading that charge, but even some liberals are piling on, calling for a vote on legislation in the range of $2.2 trillion — Pelosi’s latest offer to the White House — to send the message to voters that Democrats aren’t sitting idle while the pandemic ravages the economy and continues to kill more than 1,000 Americans a day.

“That, to me, is a compromise that addresses the needs that we have at the scale that it needs to be addressed,” progressive Rep. Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarFree Speech Inc.: The Democratic Party finds a new but shaky faith in corporate free speech Schumer works to balance a divided caucus's demands White House raises refugee cap to 62,500 MORE (D-Minn.) told reporters outside the Capitol.

Stirring the debate, President TrumpDonald TrumpThe Memo: The Obamas unbound, on race Iran says onus is on US to rejoin nuclear deal on third anniversary of withdrawal Assaults on Roe v Wade increasing MORE stunned Washington Wednesday morning when he pressed Republicans on Capitol Hill to seek “much higher” levels of funding in the next emergency package — a message that Pelosi reiterated to Mnuchin during their phone call a few hours later. 

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Senate Republicans had initially offered a $1.1 trillion package in emergency aid, but subsequently voted on a proposal providing just $650 billion — including just $350 billion in new funding. Trump, joining the Democrats, said it wasn’t enough. 

“Go for the much higher numbers, Republicans, it all comes back to the USA anyway (one way or another!),” Trump tweeted.

It was unclear what higher number the president is ready to accept, but his shifting position quickly energized Democrats, who have hammered the Republicans for pushing “emaciated” proposals they deem insufficient to address the health and economic crises caused by the pandemic. 

“We look forward to hearing from the President’s negotiators that they will finally meet us halfway with a bill that is equal to the massive health and economic crises gripping our nation,” Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerBiden to meet with GOP senators amid infrastructure push The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Emergent BioSolutions - Upbeat jobs data, relaxed COVID-19 restrictions offer rosier US picture How to fast-track climate action? EPA cutting super pollutant HFCs MORE (D-N.Y.) said in a joint statement.

GOP leaders, meanwhile, were pushing back, warning that a funding package in the $1.5 trillion range would likely lose support from a significant number of Republicans. 

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“We’d have to see what’s in it, but I think it’s difficult,” said Rep. Kevin McCarthyKevin McCarthySunday shows preview: Coronavirus dominates as White House continues to push vaccination effort Trump spokesman says defeating Cheney a top priority Gaetz, Greene tout push to oust Cheney: 'Maybe we're the leaders' MORE (R-Calif.), the minority leader. 

Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneCheney fight stokes cries of GOP double standard for women Trump muddles Republican messaging on Afghanistan The Memo: Trump's critics face wrath of GOP base MORE (R-S.D.), the majority whip, also saw red flags. 

“If the number gets too high, anything that got passed in the Senate will be passed mostly with Democrat votes and a handful of Republicans,” Thune told reporters in the Capitol. “So it's going to have to stay in a, sort of, realistic range if ... we want to maximize, optimize the number of Republican senators that will vote for it.”

Pelosi, meanwhile, is sticking with her last offer: $2.2 trillion, noting that that figure represents a $1.2 trillion reduction in the HEROES Act, which the House passed in May. She added that she has no intention of staging a vote on legislation if it lacks the bipartisan support to win Trump's signature.

“We could put a bill on the floor, but we want to put a bill on the floor that will become law,” Pelosi said in an appearance on MSNBC's “Morning Joe” program.

Front-line Democrats, those facing the toughest reelections this fall, have been begging leadership to get back to the negotiating table and strike a deal with the White House or pass a smaller package that would be more palatable to Senate Republicans. 

The leader of the moderate Blue Dog Democrats, Rep. Stephanie MurphyStephanie MurphyDemocrats confront difficult prospects for midterms Lawmakers brace for battles with colleagues as redistricting kicks off Demings mulling statewide Florida run in 2022 MORE (D-Fla.), voiced frustration with leadership’s inaction and pointed to the “anxiousness” of vulnerable members.

“I am hopeful that as leadership registers the anxiousness of the members, both Democrats and Republicans to get something done, that they will be responsive to that,” she said. 

“We can argue about what the specifics of a plan should look like,” she added. “But the important thing is that we get back to the negotiating table and hammer out a deal that can be passed into law.”