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Democrats face increasing pressure to back smaller COVID-19 stimulus

Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill are facing increasing pressure — both internal and external — to accept a smaller coronavirus aid package for the sake of securing another round of emergency relief before year’s end. 

House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy Pelosi28 Senate Democrats sign statement urging Israel-Hamas ceasefire Lawmakers bicker over how to go after tax cheats House Republican: 'Absolutely bogus' for GOP to downplay Jan. 6 MORE (D-Calif.) and Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerBiden 'encouraged' by meeting with congressional leaders on infrastructure Republicans welcome the chance to work with Democrats on a bipartisan infrastructure bill Cheney sideshow distracts from important battle over Democrats' partisan voting bill MORE (N.Y.) have insisted for weeks that the House-passed $2.2 trillion bill is their starting point for any negotiations as they’ve sought to nudge Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBipartisanship has become a partisan weapon Washington showing signs of normalcy after year of restrictions Former OMB pick Neera Tanden to serve as senior adviser to Biden MORE (R-Ky.) closer to their position from the $500 billion he’s championed. 

But the Democratic strategy is running into roadblocks as President-elect Joe BidenJoe Biden28 Senate Democrats sign statement urging Israel-Hamas ceasefire Franklin Graham says Trump comeback would 'be a very tough thing to do' Schools face new pressures to reopen for in-person learning MORE signals he wants an agreement this year and more and more Democratic lawmakers are opening the door to going below the top leaders’ $2.2 trillion red line. 

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Sen. Chris CoonsChris Andrew CoonsNew York, New Jersey, California face long odds in scrapping SALT  Biden to go one-on-one with Manchin US, Iran signal possible breakthroughs in nuke talks MORE (D-Del.), a close Biden ally, said that he would support something below $2.2 trillion, but, like most Democrats, believes the offer from McConnell is inadequate as cases climb across the country and some cities and states are reimposing restrictions aimed at slowing the spread. 

“To me it’s less about exactly what dollar amount than it is what are the areas where we’re providing some relief,” he said. “I think we ought to be doing a broad package that provides support to small businesses through another round of PPP, to schools, to public health agencies to prepare for vaccine distribution … so to me it’s less about what is the top-line dollar though I would like it to be as close to $2 trillion or above as possible, than it is about how broad it is.” 

The cracks in strategy reach into leadership teams in both chambers. 

“I just hope that we can get agreement. It may not be everything that everybody wants but at least if we can get some significant relief to people,” House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerWhat's a party caucus chair worth? House fails to pass drug bill amid Jan. 6 tensions Cheney set to be face of anti-Trump GOP MORE (D-Md.) told CQ-Roll Call. “And then we're going to be here next year. If we need to do other things, we'll do other things.”

Sen. Dick DurbinDick Durbin28 Senate Democrats sign statement urging Israel-Hamas ceasefire Senate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Sweeping election reform bill faces Senate buzz saw MORE (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat, offered similar advice in a recent CNN interview saying, “Let's get something done that is significant, do what we can achieve now.” 

The calls appeared to be turbocharged when The New York Times reported that Biden’s team was pressing Pelosi and Schumer to cut a deal during the lame-duck, even if it’s smaller than Democratic leaders in Congress prefer. 

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Andrew Bates, a spokesman for Biden, said it was “incorrect” that Biden was explicitly pushing Pelosi and Schumer to pass a pared-down bill. He didn’t respond to a question about if Biden, who has repeatedly said he wants a deal this year, could support a bill less than $2.2 trillion. 

Asked about the Times report that Biden wants a lame-duck deal even if it's smaller, a spokesman for Pelosi pointed back to Bates’s statement.

For Biden and his team, there are several clear advantages to securing a lame-duck coronavirus package. 

First, it would help alleviate the economic effect of the current spike in coronavirus cases, which have topped 11 million in the United States, clearing the slate for Biden to tackle other legislative priorities when he’s sworn in on Jan. 20. 

And second, it would put the deficit increase associated with another round of emergency COVID-19 aid squarely under the tenure of President TrumpDonald TrumpFranklin Graham says Trump comeback would 'be a very tough thing to do' Man suspected in wife's disappearance accused of casting her ballot for Trump Stefanik: Cheney is 'looking backwards' MORE, just as GOP leaders signal a shift toward austerity next year under Biden. 

“I think the Senate races in Georgia kind of put a premium on ‘we ought to try to get something.’ Because I think the two sitting senators kind of have to go out and … have something,” said Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineNew York, New Jersey, California face long odds in scrapping SALT  Senate Democrats ramp up push to limit Biden's war powers Sweeping election reform bill faces Senate buzz saw MORE (D-Va.), the party’s 2016 vice presidential nominee. 

“And also it wouldn’t be bad for Democrats … to help the incoming Biden administration on that too. Biden wants something by the end of December, we ought to be able to find it ,” added Kaine, who said the $1.8 trillion to $2.2 trillion price range previously discussed by Pelosi and the White House “makes a lot of sense.” 

Biden, Schumer and Pelosi, who met in Delaware last week, have emphasized that they want a deal on a fifth coronavirus package during the lame-duck session. But Biden hasn’t specified what price tag he could support as part of lame-duck negotiations. 

Pelosi has, for months, stuck by her $2.2 trillion demand for another round of emergency stimulus, a proposal that passed through the House in October but went ignored by GOP leaders in the Senate. And she’s urged her caucus to stay united amid the debate, arguing that Biden’s victory over Trump lends Democrats a mandate to move their legislative priorities on coronavirus relief and a host of other issues. 

“We advocate because we believe we can convince others of our point of view,” she wrote to Democrats earlier in the month. “If we advocate to unify, we can prevail.”

But McConnell has shown no signs of giving in even as the clock ticks on the chances of getting a deal this year. After Pelosi and Schumer held a joint press conference to slam him, McConnell told reporters of the higher figure “that’s not a place I think we’re willing to go.” 

“My view is the level at which the economy is improving further underscores that we need to do something at about the amount that we put on the floor in September and October. Highly targeted at what the residual problems are,” he said. 

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Senate Republicans have twice offered a roughly $500 billion GOP-only bill that was blocked in the Senate. McConnell, if there’s going to be a year-end deal, wants it to be similar to that legislation, which included another round of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) aid, money for schools and testing and the GOP leader’s red-line of protections against coronavirus lawsuits. 

But some Republican senators have indicated they are willing to go higher, in a potential opening to an eventual deal.

Sens. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamPro-Trump lawyer Lin Wood causes headache for GOP in key S.C. race GOP governors move to cut unemployment benefits as debate rages over effects Trump critics push new direction for GOP MORE (R-S.C.) and Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsCDC's about-face on masks appears politically motivated to help a struggling Biden Bipartisanship has become a partisan weapon Romney: Capitol riot was 'an insurrection against the Constitution' MORE (R-Maine) have said that more than $500 billion is needed. And Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanBipartisanship has become a partisan weapon Carper urges Biden to nominate ambassadors amid influx at border Fudge violated the Hatch Act, watchdog finds MORE (R-Ohio) said he is talking with a bipartisan group of senators about how to break the stalemate on a fifth coronavirus relief bill and get a “targeted, effective program.” 

A number of rank-and-file Democrats, many of them moderate lawmakers who survived tough reelection contests, are also pressing for bipartisan compromise in order to get some relief for struggling families and small businesses out the door before January.

Rep. Cindy AxneCindy AxneOn The Money: Weekly jobless claims fall to 498K, hitting new post-lockdown low | House to advance appropriations bills in June, July Rural Democrats urge protections from tax increases for family farms Business groups target moderate Democrats on Biden tax plans MORE (D-Iowa), a first-term lawmaker who won reelection in a state that went to Trump, said her priority is to get a bill enacted this year, and is not wedded to a specific number.

“I’ve said all along there is no one price tag that I would demand or refuse to go below in order to see us get relief to those who need it,” she said in a statement to The Hill. “If a proposal sufficiently addresses the pressing issues facing our families, workers, businesses, municipal services, and health systems, I would of course support that compromise.” 

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The Problem Solvers, a bipartisan group of moderate lawmakers, has been in talks with administration officials and senators from both parties, coming away from those discussions confident that an agreement is possible before January.  

“We cannot delay any longer,” Reps. Josh GottheimerJoshua (Josh) GottheimerFinancial market transactions should not be taxed or restricted Manchin on infrastructure: 'We're gonna find a bipartisan pathway forward' House moderates signal concerns with Pelosi drug pricing bill MORE (D-N.J.) and Tom ReedTom ReedLawmakers brace for battles with colleagues as redistricting kicks off Hundreds of businesses sign on to support LGBTQ rights legislation House panel opens probe into Tom Reed over sexual misconduct allegations MORE (R-N.Y.), the group’s co-chairs, said in a statement. “We need negotiators from both sides to come to the table willing to compromise and fully engage to get a deal across the finish line.”

A senior aide associated with the Blue Dog Coalition of centrist Democrats said that the group's members think the leaders of the current Congress should negotiate a deal on COVID-19 relief as soon as possible, but that members don't see that as mutually exclusive with Congress passing more robust measures once Biden takes office.
 
Brett Samuels contributed.