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Lawmakers fear voter backlash over failure to reach COVID-19 relief deal

Congress is running out of time if it is going to get a deal on a coronavirus relief package before Election Day.

Lawmakers in both chambers are feeling heavy pressure to win relief for their communities as the U.S. death toll ticks toward 200,000, small businesses continue to close, schools struggle to reopen and millions remain out of work.

With the elections just 46 days away, members of both parties worry the long partisan impasse means they won't be able to deliver for voters — and they’ll be punished at the polls for doing nothing.

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Yet both chambers left Washington this week with no deal in sight, frustrating lawmakers heading home to get an earful from shell-shocked constituents.

In the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump has talked to associates about forming new political party: report McConnell, Schumer fail to cut power-sharing deal amid filibuster snag McConnell keeps GOP guessing on Trump impeachment MORE (R-Ky.) has refused to consider any package topping roughly $1 trillion, even as President TrumpDonald TrumpLil Wayne gets 11th hour Trump pardon Trump grants clemency to more than 100 people, including Bannon Trump expected to pardon Bannon: reports MORE has urged GOP leaders to back “much higher numbers” and a handful of upper-chamber Republicans face diminishing prospects of keeping their seats. 

In the House, moderate Democrats are pressing hard on Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiThe Memo: Trump leaves changed nation in his wake New York court worker arrested, accused of threats related to inauguration GOP Rep Marjorie Taylor Greene referred to Parkland school shooting as 'false flag' event on Facebook MORE (D-Calif.) to move legislation to address the dual crises, even absent a deal with Republicans in the Senate and White House. But party leaders haven’t budged from their offer in excess of $2 trillion. 

“100 percent the wrong move,” said vulnerable freshman Rep. Max RoseMax RoseWe lost in November — we're proud we didn't take corporate PAC money COVID-19 is wild card as Pelosi faces tricky Speaker vote Sunday Yang files to open campaign account for NYC mayor MORE (D-N.Y.) after Pelosi and her allies rejected a $1.52 trillion relief compromise offered this week by the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus.

“With each day, we retain hope that party leadership on both sides of the aisle won’t kick the can down the road,” Rose told reporters outside the Capitol. “Party leadership on both sides of the aisle needs to put the country first. They have to stop thinking about the next election.” 

Democratic leaders and top White House officials had negotiated in person for weeks earlier in the summer, but those talks broke down Aug. 7 and have yet to resume in earnest. Amid the long impasse, Pelosi has spoken regularly 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, but aides say the topic has largely been limited to the continuing resolution, a short-term spending bill designed to fund the government and prevent a shutdown on Oct. 1. 

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How — or if — the impasse is resolved remains anyone’s guess. But the rank-and-file exasperation is bubbling up as the clock ticks toward November without even an agreement among negotiators to come to the table on more coronavirus stimulus.

“We’ve got to do something rather than nothing, but there’s too many people over there who want to do nothing,” said moderate Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.), pointing to the Senate. “People think we are not doing our job if we are not voting and not negotiating, so I’d like to negotiate, I’d like to vote, I’d like to do all of it.”

Pelosi is playing her cards close to the vest, insisting both publicly and privately that she is sticking with her last offer to Mnuchin: $2.2 trillion. That’s down from the $3.4 trillion relief package, known as the HEROES Act, that the House passed in May. 

“It's hard to see how we can go any lower when you only have greater needs," Pelosi told reporters this week.

But the Speaker is hardly concealing the different views within her caucus; instead she’s openly outlined the divergent strategies being pushed by members of various stripes. 

Some have urged her to bring the $3.4 trillion HEROES Act back to the floor, “recalibrated” to reflect on-the-ground changes in the health and economic landscape since May. Others want leadership to vote on a Democratic bill in the $2 trillion range, representing Pelosi's last offer to Republicans. And still others think the Democrats’ best shot at getting something to Trump's desk is to hold the line, resist a vote on a partisan bill, and wait for White House negotiators to resume the talks in order to secure a bipartisan deal that Trump will sign. 

Pelosi is sticking securely to option No. 3.

“You hear different things, but the fact is we want to have an agreement and we will stay until we have an agreement,” Pelosi said.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezFacebook has no current plan to end the Trump suspension New York court worker arrested, accused of threats related to inauguration Ocasio-Cortez: Facebook, Zuckerberg 'bear partial responsibility' for insurrection MORE (D-N.Y.), the progressive superstar whose Bronx district was slammed by the pandemic last spring, agreed, arguing that there was little “utility” in re-voting on the HEROES Act and that a show vote on a smaller $2 trillion package would be “weakening our position.” 

“We really need to ask, are we trying to make these decisions for electoral reasons … or are we making these decisions to actually substantively improve people's lives?” Ocasio-Cortez said. “And if we're going to come together and pass a sugar high of a $1,200 check and nothing else, we are setting people up to fail.”

The major sticking point revolves around funding for state and local governments, where the sides remain hundreds of billions of dollars apart. Yet a host of other issues are also preventing a deal, as Pelosi is insisting on an infusion of cash for coronavirus testing, food stamps, election security and rental assistance, among a host of other programs.

Rep. Derek KilmerDerek Christian KilmerCongress must reclaim its Article I powers in order to earn back public trust Hillicon 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 MORE (Wash.), head of the New Democrat Coalition, said he and the members of his group want to see “a robust, comprehensive deal” that addresses a swath of constituent concerns, from unemployment benefits and food stamps to housing assistance and relief for the Postal Service. But doing nothing at all, he added, is untenable given the distress lawmakers are hearing at home. 

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“The sense of urgency that you're seeing expressed by a whole bunch of our members is based on the conversations we're having with people who are really hurting right now,” he said. “And the pain is real.”

Pelosi’s vow to keep the House in session until a deal is reached is aimed at soothing jittery front-line Democrats. Practically, it means she alone will likely remain in Washington, reserving the option to call House lawmakers back to the Capitol at a moment’s notice and put a stimulus package on the floor before Election Day.

Some allies, including Rep. Dan KildeeDaniel (Dan) Timothy KildeeDemocrats point fingers on whether Capitol rioters had inside help Biden's Pentagon pick puts Democrats in a bind CDC studies impact of 'forever chemical' exposure on COVID-19 antibodies MORE (D-Mich.), have advised Pelosi to do just that. If no deal is reached with the White House by early October, Kildee said House Democrats should stage a vote on a $2.2 trillion package. 

“We’re not going to negotiate against ourselves, but we are not going to deny the fact that we’ve come some distance in order to try to get something done,” Kildee told The Hill. “I think we can translate [the Pelosi offer] into legislation and put it on the floor and get not only all Democrats but maybe get some Republicans.”

Pelosi’s hardline tactics seemed to bear fruit Wednesday when Trump pressed Republicans to seek more stimulus funding — the same demand Democrats have lodged for months. 

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

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The message surprised lawmakers in both parties, but recent polls indicate that more and more voters are souring on Trump’s handling of the deadly pandemic. This could hint at why the president suddenly called for Republicans to back a larger relief bill that could deliver dollars to businesses and workers across the country.

An ABC News/Ipsos survey released Monday found that a whopping 68 percent of respondents don’t trust Trump to manage the crisis. And on Friday, The New York Times and Siena College reported similar numbers, finding that only 35 percent of likely voters trust the president on the issue, versus 60 percent favoring Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump grants clemency to more than 100 people, including Bannon Scalise bringing Donna Brazile as guest to Biden inauguration Sidney Powell withdraws 'kraken' lawsuit in Georgia MORE, the Democratic nominee. 

Democrats were heartened by Trump’s stunning new call for more emergency funding, but they’re waiting impatiently for GOP leaders to show some sign of heeding it. 

“It does make one feel like perhaps his negotiators were not speaking to the president,” Kilmer said. “Because we've been waiting for four months for something to help our constituents.”

Cristina Marcos contributed.