NYT: As Democrats Fret, Pelosi Vows to Act Again on Stimulus Plan Before Election

September 15, 2020
In The News

Facing growing concern from moderate Democrats in competitive re-election races, Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said on Tuesday that the House would not leave for the November elections without acting on an additional round of federal aid to prop up the coronavirus-ravaged economy.

The declaration, coming more than a month after stimulus talks between top Democrats and the White House stalled with the two sides deeply divided, suggested that the political pressure to reach a compromise is mounting even as time is dwindling to deliver such a deal. It came as centrist Democrats, increasingly frustrated with the gridlock and anxious about returning home to constituents without having addressed the devastating toll of the pandemic, are quietly agitating for Ms. Pelosi to hold another vote on a recovery measure — if only to demonstrate a willingness to find an agreement.

“We have to stay here until we have a bill,” Ms. Pelosi privately told lawmakers during a conference call on Tuesday morning, according to two people familiar with the remarks who disclosed them on the condition of anonymity. Shortly afterward, she repeated the promise in an interview on CNBC, saying, “We are committed to staying here until we have an agreement that meets the needs of the American people.”

Rank-and file lawmakers in both parties have become increasingly disaffected about the failure by their leaders to reach agreement on another round of pandemic aid, and divisions have surfaced among Democrats about how to proceed. Shortly after Ms. Pelosi’s declarations on Tuesday, a group of 50 centrist Republicans and Democrats put forward a stimulus proposal worth as much as $2 trillion that they said they hoped could shake up the stalled talks, but the plan was swiftly rejected by senior Democrats who called it “a retreat” from the party’s priorities.

At the same time, moderate Democrats facing tough re-election contests, who traditionally have Ms. Pelosi’s ear, amped up their demands for action.

It was unclear, given the House’s unusual pandemic-era voting rules, what exactly Ms. Pelosi meant when she pledged to keep the chamber in session until there was a deal. It was unlikely that all 430-plus members of the House would stay in Washington past early October, when they are scheduled to return to their districts for the final stretch of the campaign.

The prospects of any compromise remained long, and many lawmakers and aides on Capitol Hill have all but given up on passing something into law before the election. In the meantime, millions of jobless Americans are beginning to exhaust traditional unemployment aid that has kept them afloat and stimulated the economy, and many small businesses, including restaurants, have been left to contend with a steep drop in revenue and coming cold weather on their own.

“This is a failure of leadership across the board — Democrats and Republicans,” Representative Max Rose, Democrat of New York, said in an interview. He called the quick rejection of the bipartisan proposal “yet another demonstration of why the American people hate politics.”

Mr. Rose was among the members of the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus, whose plan was a last-ditch attempt to broach a compromise before November’s elections.

The measure would infuse the economy with at least $1.5 trillion in new money, in addition to repurposing $130 billion from previous legislation and building in $400 billion in automatic triggers that would extend jobless aid and provide for another round of stimulus checks if the economy remains hobbled in January. Aiming for a middle ground between Republican and Democratic positions, the proposal includes measures that have bipartisan support, like reviving the popular Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses and direct checks of $1,200 or more for American taxpayers.

But hours after its public release, top Democrats issued a takedown of the plan.

“When it comes to bolstering the public health system, supporting state and local governments and assisting struggling families, the Problem Solvers’ proposal leaves too many needs unmet,” they wrote. “With the general election just 49 days away and the Postal Service sabotaged by the Trump administration, their proposal also abandons our responsibility to protect the life of our democracy.”

Lawmakers had acknowledged that the plan was unlikely to become law. But in unveiling it, the group sought to signal to Ms. Pelosi and the lead White House negotiators — Mark Meadows, the chief of staff, and Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary — that there was ample common ground to be found in talks that have been dormant for weeks.

“I hope very much that leadership hears us in the Senate, the House and the White House,” said Representative Elissa Slotkin, Democrat of Michigan and a freshman who flipped a seat in a district Mr. Trump won in 2016 by seven points. “None of us want to go back to our constituents and say that we didn’t try, that we didn’t do everything we could.”

Senate Republicans, who have continued to denounce their Democratic counterparts for preventing a scaled-down Republican plan from advancing on Thursday, charged that Democrats had no interest in a legislative compromise until control of the House, Senate and the White House had been decided. Negotiators are now focused on agreeing to a stopgap spending measure to keep the government funded through the fall.

“I don’t see her being more willing to negotiate before we get to the election,” Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, said of Ms. Pelosi on Tuesday. “So, I think I’m not too optimistic, but if lightning strikes, I’ll be here.”

The House passed a $3.4 trillion stimulus measure in May, but Republicans rejected it out of hand and have recently pushed for what they call a “skinny” bill that would provide just $350 billion in new spending. Ms. Pelosi has been adamant that Democrats will not accept anything less than $2.2 trillion, arguing that the toll of the pandemic warrants a significant new infusion from Congress. But multiple factions in the Democratic caucus have privately urged her and other leaders to remain in Washington and find a solution.

“A skinny deal is not a deal,” Ms. Pelosi privately told Democrats Tuesday morning. “It is a Republican bill.”

A meeting with the moderate New Democrat Coalition grew tense as well, as several of its members pressed Ms. Pelosi and Representative Steny H. Hoyer, Democrat of Maryland and the majority leader, to keep members in Washington until a deal could be reached.

“When I speak to my constituents, they don’t ask me why Mitch McConnell isn’t doing anything,” Representative Kathleen Rice, Democrat of New York, told the leaders, referring to the Senate majority leader, according to two people familiar with her comments. “They ask me what our Democratic majority is doing to work around him.”

Ms. Pelosi encouraged Ms. Rice to poll her colleagues to see how many really wanted to stay.

The situation has exacerbated existing divisions among Democrats, many of whom argued that Ms. Pelosi was right to insist on a wide-ranging $2.2 trillion package.

On the private call Tuesday morning, Representative Sean Patrick Maloney, Democrat of New York and one of the more than 30 Democrats who represents a district Mr. Trump won in 2016, urged his colleagues to “lean in, support the speaker, stay the course.”

“I do not feel this is one of the cases where the politics are bad for frontline members,” Mr. Maloney said in an interview.

“I have been in many situations where the policies of a Trump district is at odds with the sentiments of the House Democratic caucus I think the speaker is spot on in her approach to this, and we should stick with it until we win a real victory that addresses the needs of the people we represent.”