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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 PelosiWoman accused of trying to sell Pelosi laptop to Russians arrested Conspiracies? Let's investigate this one FBI investigating whether woman took Pelosi laptop, tried to sell it to Russians MORE (D-Calif.) and House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerBoebert communications director resigns amid Capitol riot: report GOP divided over Liz Cheney's future Pelosi mum on when House will send impeachment article to Senate MORE (D-Md.) huddled in Pelosi’s office in the Capitol. Afterward, Pelosi spoke by phone with Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven MnuchinTreasury imposes additional sanctions on Cuba over allegations of 'serious human rights abuse' Treasury Department sanctions inner circle of Russian agent Derkach for election interference Sanders defends push to impeach Trump: Insurrection won't be tolerated 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 OmarDemocrats poised to impeach Trump again Pence opposes removing Trump under 25th Amendment: reports Pelosi vows to impeach Trump again — if Pence doesn't remove him first MORE (D-Minn.) told reporters outside the Capitol.

Stirring the debate, President TrumpDonald TrumpGiuliani used provisional ballot to vote in 2020 election, same method he disparaged in fighting to overturn results Trump gets lowest job approval rating in final days as president Fox News' DC managing editor Bill Sammon to retire 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 SchumerCowboys for Trump founder arrested following Capitol riot Graham pushes Schumer for vote to dismiss impeachment article Biden and the new Congress must protect Americans from utility shutoffs 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 McCarthyHouse GOP lawmaker: Trump 'put all of our lives at risk' Sasse, in fiery op-ed, says QAnon is destroying GOP Democrats seize on GOP donor fallout MORE (R-Calif.), the minority leader. 

Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneImpeachment trial tests Trump's grip on Senate GOP For platform regulation Congress should use a European cheat sheet Streamlining the process of prior authorization for medical and surgical procedures 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 seize on GOP donor fallout Lobbying world Newspaper editorial board apologizes for endorsing Republican over support for Texas lawsuit 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.”