House

Moderate Democrats press for auto-stabilizers in COVID-19 aid package

Moderate House Democrats are pressing party leaders in Congress and the White House to boost unemployment benefits for the duration of the coronavirus crisis by tying the increase directly to economic conditions.

The New Democrat Coalition, a group of centrists boasting more than 90 members, has pressed for months to include that automatic trigger mechanism in the various COVID-19 relief bills already passed through Congress, to no avail.

Now, as Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill prepare to move another massive round of emergency stimulus, the moderates are trying again.

In a letter to House Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Steny Hoyer (Md.), and another to President Biden, the lawmakers urged that a host of their priorities be incorporated. The list includes an expansion of the child tax credit, billions of dollars for mental health services, and billions more to boost the research, production and dissemination of COVID-19 vaccines.

It also features legislation hitching the federal increase in unemployment benefits to economic factors on the ground, thereby precluding the need for Congress to extend those benefits with new legislation down the road.

Sponsored by Reps. Don Beyer (D-Va.), head of the Joint Economic Committee, and Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.), the former chairman of the New Democrats, the autopilot provision is designed to guarantee that jobless benefits get a boost when they're most needed, while divorcing the increase from the partisan stalemates that have come to define Capitol Hill.

"This unprecedented crisis has called for unprecedented action, and it has long been clear that additional aid and stimulus is required to end the pandemic, provide direct support to those in need, ensure a lasting recovery, and prepare for future crises," the lawmakers wrote to Biden, Pelosi and Hoyer.

The letters were spearheaded by the new head of the New Democrats, Rep. Suzan DelBene (Wash.).

Separately, the New Democrats also met virtually Wednesday afternoon with two key economic figures in the new administration: Brian Deese, the White House economic director, and Jeff Zeints, who heads Biden's coronavirus response team.

The moderate Democrats have a sympathetic audience. Biden, in unveiling a $1.9 trillion coronavirus package earlier in the month, proposed to expand federal jobless benefits through September, after which time he's vowing to work with Congress to adopt the automatic stabilizers.

His Treasury secretary, Janet Yellen, also endorsed the concept during her Senate confirmation hearing last week.

"Automatic stabilizers play a critical role in mitigating the negative impacts of recession," she said.

The idea is popular across the Democratic caucus, with liberals and moderates both embracing it. And Pelosi has also endorsed the construct, not only for jobless benefits but also for other emergency programs, including nutrition benefits and Medicaid payments. Yet the Democrats' $3.4 trillion Heroes Act - a virtual wish-list of the party's priorities that passed through the House last May - excluded those triggers due to the price tag associated with them.

Republicans are already balking at Biden's plan, citing the effect on federal budgets. But with Biden in the White House, and the Senate now controlled by Democrats as well, the New Democrats see a chance to adopt the stabilizers, among other emergency measures, early this year.

"In partnership with the Biden administration and a Democratic-led Senate, we have an extraordinary opportunity to build on the foundation of our previous efforts, learn from the challenges of this and previous recessions, and build back better," they wrote.

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